Waste Management in France: A History of the “Poubelle”

November 9, 2010By David JaggardC'est Ironique!
Just how modern is Paris’s modern trash sorting system?

Like every other city in the emerged world, Paris has a trash sorting ordinance. Every building has three big plastic bins with color-coded lids: green for unrecyclable household wastes; yellow for paper, plastic and metal; and white for glass. It’s a good system, simple (although apparently way too complex for some of my neighbors) and efficient.

And long overdue: the program wasn’t adopted citywide until 2002, years after most U.S. municipalities had accepted trash sorting as a fact of life. Before then, garbage was garbage in Paris, and it all went to the same place. On one occasion in the mid-nineties I went to a barbecue party at which a large quantity of food was consumed on paper plates and an even larger quantity of beer consumed from little 25-centiliter glass bottles, for which reason the hosts had placed 100-liter trash bags here and there to collect the (unsorted) waste. I remember one of the American guests who had just finished a beer asking, “Where should I put the bottle? Are we recycling glass?” To which someone replied, “Whaddaya think this is, Berkeley?”

And now it’s time for a little French lesson: the French word for “garbage can” is “poubelle” (pronounced “poo-bell”). The etymologically inclined will search in vain for any connection to any other term related to containers or rubbish or Mafia cover operations, because it’s named after a person. Meet Eugène Poubelle, prefect of the Seine (roughly the equivalent of the mayor of Paris in those days) from 1883 to 1896, a visionary and an innovator who saw the utility of such curiosities as sewer mains and trash bins.

Showing remarkable foresight and common sense, in 1884 Poubelle passed a directive – or edict, or fiat or whatever it is that a prefect passes – requiring every building in Paris to install receptacles for the collection of refuse. In short order the newfangled objects became, thanks to derisive coverage in the press (we do what we can), named after him.

I like to think of the period during which the word “poubelle” became the word poubelle – when the slang term became accepted textbook French. I like to think of Pierre Larousse and his editorial assistants debating the pros and cons of adopting this ignoble neologism before including it in the 1890 edition of the Grand Dictionnaire Universel. I like to think of Third Republic Parisians carping and grousing about having to haul their trash downstairs instead of just chucking it out the window to collect in the gutter as Dieu intended. But most of all I like to think of Eugène Poubelle’s teenage daughter (presuming he had one) coming home from school in tears and whining, “Daaaaad! All the kids are making fun of me! Couldn’t you have, like, invented the telephone or something?”

But now we come to the Ironique part: In Monsieur Poubelle’s original order requiring the use of what would come to be called poubelles, it was further stipulated that each building in Paris must have three such containers (yes, same as now): one for “putrescible” wastes, one for paper and cloth (reusable fibers) and one for glass, ceramics and oyster shells (respectively remeltable, reusable after crushing and recuperable for making buttons). Now that’s a man who was ahead of his time. It’s enough to make a daughter proud.

Reader Pamela Wesson writes: “Excellent article, ironically timed for the end of the 20-day garbage strike.”


© 2010 Paris Update


An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”

Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.

Follow C’est Ironique on Facebook and Twitter.

What do you think? Send a comment:

Your comment is subject to editing. Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe for free!

The Paris Update newsletter will arrive in your inbox every Wednesday, full of the latest Paris news, reviews and insider tips.