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In Pictures: 9 Weird and Gross Eco-Friendly Initiatives Throughout History

In Pictures: 9 Weird and Gross Eco-Friendly Initiatives Throughout History

Make Change Staff—In Pictures

Image via Internet Archive

Image via Internet Archive

Going green is not a particularly modern phenomenon. Initiatives to be eco-friendlier have been around for hundreds of years (albeit with different branding). And without the benefit of Google, or years’ worth of studies on the best ways to go about making a difference, some of the solutions that have come up over the course of history to preserve the Earth have been ... shall we say ... unique. Here’s a roundup of some of the weirdest, grossest, and most bizarre eco-friendly initiatives in history. 

Reusable coffins

Reusable coffin via Halley Sutton

Reusable coffin via Halley Sutton

In 1785, Austrian Hapsburg emperor Joseph II introduced a macabre way to go green: reusable coffins. The coffins were made out of wood and provided a trap door, so to speak, that would allow for a closed casket burial. Once the ritual was completed and the family had moved on, the coffin was emptied of its inhabitant and remained above-ground, waiting to bury another body another day.  

The measure was so unpopular that the people rioted, and Joseph was forced to withdraw the measure just six months after he’d implemented it. So long, green coffins.

Composted remains

Green casket via The Green Burial Council

Green casket via The Green Burial Council

Modern funerals are kind of a resource hog. According to the Green Burial Council, burials in the United States per year use 64,500 tons of steel, 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid (which contains formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene), and 1.6 million tons of concrete.

Enter Washington: In 2019, the state of Washington passed a law allowing residents to choose a new way to go green, even in death: the option to compost their remains post-mortem. Rather than be buried or cremated, now eco-minded citizens can opt to be “recompositioned,” the official name for the process by which human remains are converted into soil.  

Washable condoms—made from animal guts

Public health ad via Library of Medicine

Public health ad via Library of Medicine

Back in the early days of contraceptives, condoms were made from animal guts—typically lamb intestines. (Although the first recorded use of a condom-like invention was the use of a goat’s bladder in ancient Greece.)

Problem was, it wasn’t exactly a sustainable (or affordable) solution to sacrifice one of your herd every time you wanted to get frisky and practice safe(ish?) sex. So, as a solution, after their usage, these early contraceptives were washed, cleaned, and reused.

Saving grain by killing everything else

Tudor-era official decree via Internet Archive

Tudor-era official decree via Internet Archive

We all know King Henry VIII thought the way out of most of his problems was through killing or crazy medieval torture (and then in all likelihood, more killing). But the king’s wives and political allies weren’t the only ones that needed to worry about their heads.

In 1532, to curb grain shortages, King Henry enacted The Preservation of Grain Act, which sounds like a good thing but really just made it mandatory for every man, woman, and child to kill all the “vermin” they could find. Each species had its own bounty—ranging from a penny for certain birds to 12 pence for a fox, according to The Guardian.

Since we’re talking Tudor-era England, most workers were happy to partake in their own version of Merry Old England’s Whacking Day, slaughtering millions of animals, and bringing many of the nation’s native species to the brink of extinction. Oh, and he was also wrong. Bad harvests and a sharp rise in population were likely the cause of the grain shortages. 

Channeling kangaroo farts

Man fighting kangaroo via Internet Archive

Man fighting kangaroo via Internet Archive

When cows pass gas, they emit methane, a gas that’s 23 times worse for the environment than carbon dioxide. Given the western world’s craving for beef, that’s a problem.  

Back in the early aughts, researchers in Australia thought they had a solution: make cows more like kangaroos. Thanks to a faster digestive system, and bacteria in their intestines, kangaroos emit less methane than other ruminants. Researchers hoped to isolate the bacteria from kangaroo intestines and introduce it to cows’ systems in an attempt to cut down on methane. But the program was abandoned when it turned out kangaroo farts weren’t really all that much better for the environment.

And for the record, cows do fart, but their belches are far worse for the climate crisis.

Bleaching your whites with urine … pearly whites, too

Commercial laundry via The Library of Congress

Commercial laundry via The Library of Congress

Back in ancient Rome, urine was collected and used by local laundromats to brighten white clothing. Thanks to the ammonia in urine that neutralizes dirt and grease, it was actually a pretty good (and pretty green) cleanser. Workers would stand in a tub filled with urine diluted by water and stomp on the clothes until they were clean.

But that’s not the only use that Romans found for urine. According to Catullus, urine was used as a mouth wash to clean and whiten chompers. But hey, don’t take his word for it: others have successfully tried it, too.

Really green diapers

First Nations Children via Vancouver Public Library

First Nations Children via Vancouver Public Library

We mean literally green. Like made-of-moss-and-leaves green. In the eastern part of Russia, the Chukchee used reindeer moss, hair, and potentially wood shavings as makeshift diapers for their little ones. Babies would sit in a wrapping with the absorbent items at the bottom, which would be changed when the baby cried—much like our modern-day hamster set up.

The Navajo used plants, specifically the bark of the desert cliffrose, to keep their babies dry and happy. No word on how brutal the baby rash was, but it certainly was an eco-friendly option.

Paving over the Dust Bowl

Dust bowl farmer via National Library of Congress

Dust bowl farmer via National Library of Congress

The Dust Bowl was a man-made ecological disaster. Over-farming uprooted native grasses, loosening the topsoil beneath. A massive drought coupled with high winds created huge clouds of dust, big enough to blacken the sky and reach all the way to New York. Farms were lost, people were displaced, and the region, already suffering from the Great Depression, was thrown into economic turmoil.  

Throughout the Dust Bowl, everyone from military officers to nut jobs who thought they personally could make it rain contacted the government with a “solution.” And then there was New Jersey’s own Barber Asphalt Company. The company offered to pave over the afflicted 100 million acres for a mere $5 per acre to stop the dust, according to Mental Floss. But it wasn’t just going to be one big parking lot. The company also planned to drill small holes across the pavement so farmers could drop in seeds and grow their crops. Lucky!  

Cockroaches chowing trash in China

Landfill via Alan Levine/Flickr

Landfill via Alan Levine/Flickr

The world generates more than 2 billion tons of trash each year, according to World Bank. One country has come up with an innovative solution: feeding cockroaches the trash. In the city of Jinan, China, a billion cockroaches are being fed 50 tons of organic waste per day. The system is working so well the area is looking to open up three more cockroach waste disposal plants in the near future.

They might not be so cute to look at but utilizing cockroaches as tiny trash hounds has a certain appeal. Now, let’s just hope the cockroaches don’t escape the facilities ...

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