Eugène-René Poubelle and waste containers in Paris

Friday, January 8, 2021

Eugène-René Poubelle has introduced waste containers to Paris (garbage cans) and made their use compulsory.

Eugène-René Poubelle was born on 15 April 1831, died 15 July 1907. He was a French lawyer and diplomat who introduced waste containers to Paris (garbage cans) and made their use compulsory. This introduction was so innovative at the time that Poubelle's surname became synonymous with waste bins (la poubelle) and remains the most common French word for a bin.

Eugène Poubelle was born to a bourgeois in Normandy in Caen. He studied to become a lawyer and obtained a PhD.He taught at universities in Caen, Grenoble and Toulouse before being made préfet, or government representative and regional administrator, in the Charente in April 1871. He then successively became préfet for many regions and finally, from 1883 to 1896, for the Seine department.

Préfet of the Seine department was a very powerful position, and the préfet effectively exercised in Paris the powers that the elected mayor would have had in other French cities. 

On 7 March 1884 Poubelle decreed that owners of buildings must provide their residents with three covered containers of 40 to 120 litres to hold household refuse.

The refuse was to be sorted into compostable items, paper and cloth, and crockery and shells.

The population of Paris, close to two million, needed a system to empty the containers regularly. Parisians began to name their boxes after Poubelle, a habit encouraged by the newspaper Le Figaro, which called them Boîtes Poubelle. The boxes met resistance, owners of buildings resenting the cost of providing and supervising the bins, and traditional rag-and-bone men, the chiffonniers, seeing a threat to their living.

The boxes deteriorated but the principles of what Poubelle established survived. But not until the end of the WWII did dustbins and their collection by municipalities become common. 

By then poubelle as a noun had been established, and was first recognized by a supplement of the Grand Dictionnaire Universel du 19ème Siècle in 1890.

Eugène Poubelle also campaigned successfully for direct drainage. A resurgence of cholera in 1892 led to his decreeing in 1894 that all buildings were to be connected direct to the sewers at the expense of the building's owner.

Poubelle became ambassador to the Vatican in 1896 and to the Roman court in 1898. 

Poubelle died in Paris on 15 July 1907 and is buried in the Herminis cemetery near Carcassonne. A bust depicting him is displayed outside the city's Musée des Beaux-Arts. Rue Eugène Poubelle, a street between the Avenue de Versailles and the Quai Louis-Bleriot in Paris's 16 arrondissement, is named after him.