Aztecs: The OG Zero Waste Society

We talk a lot about our ancestors around here. When you think about zero waste or sustainability, what comes to mind? Do you think of your abuelita or your great great great abuela? Probably not. We’re here to change that.

The reality is that many of today’s sustainable or eco-friendly practices go back thousands of years. There are many examples of our ancestors living sustainably but we, unfortunately, don’t hear these stories often enough. This omission erases our ancestors’ contributions to sustainability, zero-waste, and environmental movements.

At VOLVERde, we’re here to reclaim the sustainability conversation to center around our ancestral practices.

We are not discovering sustainability. We’re embracing it and going back to the basics, just like our abuelitas did and taught us.

The Aztecs, for example, innovated and perfected a waste management system that is just now getting recognition from anthropologists. With over 200,000 inhabitants in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (one of the largest cities in the world at the time), managing waste – both human and food – was a significant challenge and, if done wrong, could harm human health. However, Aztec engineers developed an elaborate system involving composting food scraps, human waste disposal, and re-use methods to minimize waste and protect human and environmental health. They created what we consider today an innovative, sustainable resource management system.

Aztec architects created chinampas, or artificial islands that worked as floating gardens, to efficiently harvest crops, irrigate, and transport goods across the city. Similar raised field systems can be found in South America, Asia, and parts of Africa. In 2018, the United Nations designated chinampas as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System

Traditional Chinampas CanalsTraditional Chinampas photographed in 1912 by Karle Weule

Chinampas produced 75% of the food consumed by Tenochtitlan and are now being examined as a model to help modern-day food supply issues and urban agriculture. Scientists have also found that chinampas provide other valuable environmental benefits, such as fostering biodiversity, improving water filtration, and greenhouse gas sequestration. Research shows  that chinampas sequester large quantities of carbon and can play an important role in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Unfortunately, the Spaniards dismantled the waste management system, drained all of the lakes, and built Mexico City over the land during the conquest.

Beyond architectural and urban agriculture, the Aztecs led the way in socializing a general respect for mother earth and her finite bounty. Public littering and wastefulness were highly frowned upon in Aztec society. During the rule of Moctezuma II from 1502 to 1520, littering and dumping of waste was against the law and penalized. A person could be sentenced to death for cutting down a living tree without proper authorization. The expectations were even higher for members of the royal class—they faced stiffer penalties and children of nobility could be sentenced to death if they were considered wasteful.

We can find other examples in indigenous groups from all over Latin America: the Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas Kábata Könana del Territorio Cabécar and the Indigenous women of the Talamanca region in Costa Rica; the Kichwa people in Colombia, Peru, and (mainly) in Ecuador; and then in the Chilean Patagonia, a community called Mapuche Pewenche. These Indigenous groups draw on their traditional agricultural practices and knowledge.

Mapuche woman outdoors

Mapuche Woman, Marcelo Silva Getty Images 

For the Mapuche, waste becomes an input of the next cycle of life. Animals play their part in fertilizing the soil, and weeds provide useful functions for growing crops. Traditional medicinal plants and local native seed varieties are grown and exchanged, creating local exchange fairs between families and communities that help strengthen food sovereignty and security as well as community resilience in the face of external shocks. They have built systems rooted in reciprocity and self-sufficiency.

For many Indigenous communities, sustainability practices are a result of thoughtful and intentional strategies to protect a delicate balance between people and the natural world and to ensure that there is enough benefit left for future generations.

Even if you don’t realize it, there are so many of these practices ingrained into our culture and everyday lives. You close the fridge. You eat all of the food on your plate. You don’t waste anything, from food to the containers they come in. You don’t turn on the heat; you put on a sweater. You don’t turn on the AC; you open the windows and put a wet rag around your neck or take a cold shower. You share what you have with others. These are things that are second nature to us.

Let’s remember and honor our sustainability traditions, which run deep in our cultura. Let’s be thankful for the ancestors that came before us and planted the seed for the next generation to care for our planet.

Ready to take the next step?

If you want to find other ways to boost your eco-friendly lifestyle, check out our indigenous-owned collection. We offer a wide range of products made sustainably using centuries-old artisanal techniques, from agave body sponges to hand-woven napkins.



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