The history of human evolution is the history of garbage disposal. Our earliest ancestors tossed their rubbish into the back of the cave. When they ran out of space, they found a new cave. All through the slow climb towards civilization, human garbage was treated with no respect – emptied out of windows with little regard to passing traffic, piled up behind houses or thrown over the walls of castles. These unsanitary habits provided a treasure house for present-day archaeologists. But they didn’t do much to improve the environment at the time. Most towns, villages, and cities were full of stinking garbage.

Civilization really began with the professionalization of garbage in nineteenth century France. Most Americans, as they trundle their bins out into the cold dawn, don’t realize that they owe this convenience to a famous Frenchman, Monsieur Eugène-René Poubelle (1833-1907). This convivial, multitalented man was a historical figure in more ways than one. As a professor of law and a radical democrat, he was suspected of treason by Napoleon III. But he survived, and after the fall of the Empire, M. Poubelle was appointed Prefect (or Governor) of the Paris region, where he made many improvements in architecture and public services.

But the thing he really wanted to do was clean the place up. Not to put too fine a point on it, Paris was a filthy city. In 1884, Prefect Poubelle introduced a law that required each homeowner to provide a special bin for garbage, which was then collected at regular intervals by carts which traveled around the city, announcing their arrival with blasts on a hunting horn. Nobody had proposed such a simple and radical reform since the foundation of Paris some two thousand years before. Proper garbage collection had arrived, and it was enormously popular with the citizens, who made M. Poubelle into a kind of hero.
The original garbage cans were round, and made of galvanized iron. The modern French version is square and plastic. But, however different it looks from the 19th century model, it is still called a Poubelle. There’s immortality for you!

Like all the other aspects of our culture, garbage collection had become more complex. But, in the end, we all agree on one thing. We just want our garbage to go away. French villages like Aniane have a neat system. There are large, square communal bins on wheels parked in convenient (and inconvenient) spots all around the village. Wherever you live, there is one quite close by. In hill villages, these bins-on-wheels are held precariously by small railings in the street. One might expect vandals to send them careering downhill, but they never do. The French have too much respect for their garbage.

When we had accumulated a respectable amount of garbage, we put it all into one of those the pale blue plastic bags favored by the French. Wine bottles, because of sheer quantity, had to be recycled. We carried the blue sack down the street, tossed it into the to the nearest bin, and our duty was done. Two or three times each week – usually very early in the morning – all the Poubelles were rolled down to the central square with a noise like a several major earthquakes happening at once. They were tipped into a big truck, with more impressive sound effects and away they went, nobody knew where.
We enjoyed this logical, convenient system of communal garbage disposal. But there was something secretive about it. In America, our neighbors can see and note exactly the amount of garbage we produce. Here we got no credit, either for extravagance or economy.

Whenever I set off down the street with the blue bag, I would say: “Just going out to the poubelle.” And so I always remembered the jolly, brave Prefect of Paris, who made it all possible. Most of us would like to be remembered for something even half as useful.

Copyright: David Bouchier