Excavating late human civilization

Sifting the detritus of the late plastocine, archeologists have found that when coffee packaging came to exceed coffee, people recycled a bit to feel better. And not just those Nespresso pods: feeble prayers to angry Gaia included coffee cup “recycling”.

Coffee drinkers were not alone in the production of rubbish that was ceremonially, if not practically, recyclable: excavations along roads of the era find accumulations of McDonald’s coke cups, beer cans, energy drink cans, juice packs, and water bottles. The large quantity of containers for water, sweetened water and water substitutes has been a puzzle for archeologists. Now, the study of these reservoirs of rubbish has led to an improved understanding of the collapse of human civilization, and to an adjustment of the dates at which that the collapse is believed to have started.

The thickness of the strata of containers suggests that while late humans were well (and perhaps over-) hydrated, they had lost the art of plumbing: lead pipes may have done in the Romans, but drink container waste from the early 21st century is consistent with the absence of a reliable domestic supply of potable water – how else can the use and awkward transport of these costly containers be explained? Thus, the growing numbers of discarded bottles, cans and cups as the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first is now seen as indicative of the loss of much of the basic infrastructure that had been built up over the previous centuries, and suggests that the collapse of human civilization may have begun a century earlier than scholars had previously believed.