The short answer is that, although there were laws concerning the disposal of waste,
there is no evidence of widespread municipal waste management in the
modern sense of the word; there were only individual efforts at
dealing with waste.
Source: F. Havlicek, M. Morcinek, Waste and Pollution in the Ancient Roman Empire (2016)
There were, however, efforts by the authorities in some areas to deal with the problem and there is also evidence of recycling. Mostly, though, it seems Romans were expected to use dumpsites on the edges of cities but, in the absence of proper enforcement, many just threw trash on the streets, in the sewers or in pits their own homes.
When it comes to waste disposal, ancient Rome was, in some ways at least, not much different from modern cities in that rich areas tended to have better services and to have at least some rules / laws more strictly adhered to than in poor areas.
A lot of trash was thrown into sewers which, over time, meant that emperors had to order rivers dredged due to the accumulated garbage. In poorer areas, another method of waste disposal was just dumping it into the streets:
In Rome and other cities in the empire, the approach to waste
management was quite lax….Waste of probably all kinds was thrown out
of windows and onto the street, particularly at night. The satirist
Juvenalis warns his readers about this phenomenon:
…it’s a long way
up to the rooftops, and a falling tile can brain you. Think of all
those cracked or leaky vessels tossed out of windows—the way they
smash, their weight, the damage they do to the sidewalk! You’ll be
thought most improvident, a catastrophe-happy fool, if you don’t make
your will before venturing out to dinner. Each open upper casement
along your route at night may prove a death-trap: so pray and hope
(poor you!) that the local housewives drop nothing worse on your head
than a pailful of slops.
Source: F. Havlicek, M. Morcinek
As jamesqf noted in his comment, Rome "did have a good underground sewer system" (see Cloaca Maxima) but few houses or even public latrines were directly connected to it, probably due to the cost of digging up streets for underground pipes. Also,
Three other compelling reasons that may have deterred private
homeowners from having a drain that connected to the main sewer were
flooding, odor and vermin. Almost every year the Tiber River flooded
and when this occurred the Cloaca Maxima became backfilled with water,
clogging the drain with the wastes it had dumped into the river.
Source: Craig Taylor, 'The Disposal of Human Waste: A comparison between Ancient Rome and Medieval London'
One common solution was the use of chamber pots. These were then
emptied in a vat placed under the well of the staircase. If tenement
owners did not allow these vats to be placed in their building the
tenant could empty their human waste into the nearest dungheap located
in an alley, into the public latrines or into the gutters that ran
down the sides of the street.
Another alternative was to load human excrement into wagons, which
passed through the streets during the day while other wheeled traffic
was not allowed to be in the city. Those responsible for this duty
were called stercorarii and they would take these cartloads of human
waste and sell it to farmers as fertilizer.
Source: C. Taylor
The article Concrete, Fresh Water, and Trash says:
For common people there was no house-to-house garbage collection.
People continued to dump their rubbish into the street, and the
rubbish at times became so thick that stepping-stones were needed.
Street levels were to rise as new buildings would be constructed on
top of trash...
Pompeii street: Stepping stones were placed in the streets because sewage flowed through
…excavations have shown garbage piled up all along the interior of the
city walls, in streets and alleys outside homes, and even on the
floors of their own homes.
This source also notes how the locals also dumped trash around tombs. Archaeologist Allison Emmerson also says that,
I excavated a room in a house where the cistern (for storing drinking
water and water for washing) was placed between two waste pits. Both
waste pits were found completely packed with trash in the form of
broken household pottery, animal bones and other food waste, like
grape seeds and olive pits.
Source: 'The bizarre story of where ancient Pompeii put its trash'
In short, as Theodore Peña of the University of California, Berkeley,
basically didn’t take out the garbage.
Nonetheless, there were laws against just dumping trash on the streets and, in Rome at least, there were dumpsites:
These bad habits were tackled through bans and orders, as well as by
applying concrete technical measures. Concerning throwing rubbish from
windows, the main thing was to prevent pedestrians from being injured.
The perpetrator or the building owner could be hit with a
fine…Private building owners were required to keep the section of
street in front of their buildings clean. If they did not do so, they
had to pay for it to be cleaned at their own expense...
Solid waste was most likely taken outside of the town. Although during
daytime hours transportation was restricted in the cities, records of
exceptions for waste wagons exist (plostra ... stercoris exportandei
causa) (Thüry, 2001: 5-7). There is, however, no record of a public,
organized waste removal service.
Source: F. Havlicek, M. Morcinek
One major excavated dumpsite is Monte Testaccio, two kilometres from the forum:
This artificial hill, the largest preserved waste heap from Classical
times, is the result of a specific waste management practice. The
entire mound consists almost entirely of broken amphorae imported to
Source: F. Havlicek, M. Morcinek
Excavation of the 150-foot high trash 'mountain' at Testaccio. Image source: CNN
Some trash was taken away on barges and the Romans also recycled, though we should not imagine that it was for environmental reasons but rather for economic ones. Citing Statius and Martial, the article Romans used to recycle glass states:
...in the first century there were "ambulator" that roamed the city
trying to get to the broken glass...
because recycled glass was cheaper to use due to the lower temperature needed to heat it. Metals were also recycled; in 2016, Israeli archaeologists found a shipwreck near Caesarea with a cargo of scrap metal (statues, coins) destined for recycling. According to the Israel Antiquities Authority statement, recycling of metal statues was very common:
Metal statues are rare archaeological finds because they were always
melted down and recycled in antiquity.
Stories of Ancient Recycling
Tracing the Trickle-down in Roman Recycling