The Garbage Genius of Paris

I just got back from my first trip to Europe, where the cities are a lot older and a lot different than they are here in the New World. I made many observations on my brief trip, which included Paris and Barcelona, and I'm sure those will bubble up in blog posts in the near future. However, I won't waste anyone's time remarking about how great European cities are. We've all heard it before, and while it may be right, the point has been made. Like, really made. So, yes, the narrow streets are nice to walk on, the bike sharing system in Paris is awesome, and the architecture is impressive. But one piece of these cities that hasn't receioved enough praise is their garbage cans.

3 minute read

June 6, 2009, 8:05 AM PDT

By Nate Berg


I just got back from my first trip to Europe, where the cities are a lot older and a lot different than they are here in the New World. I made many observations on my brief trip, which included Paris and Barcelona, and I'm sure those will bubble up in blog posts in the near future. However, I won't waste anyone's time remarking about how great European cities are. We've all heard it before, and while it may be right, the point has been made. Like, really made.

So, yes, the narrow streets are nice to walk on, the bike sharing system in Paris is awesome, and the architecture is impressive. But one piece of these cities that hasn't receioved enough praise is their garbage cans.

Specifically, I'm talking about Paris here, and more specifically, we can't even call them garbage cans. As you can see in the picture below (yes, I take pictures of garbage cans on vacation), these garbage "cans" are not much more than posts, hoops and plastic bags.

Parisian Garbage Collector

Now that's simple infrastructure. A post, a hoop and a bag. It's got to cost next to nothing to make one of these things – a lot less than a bulky concrete block or metal can like you see in many cities. But it gets the job done. Additionally, it makes trash collection really easy. A simple elastic bungee band holds the bag to the hoop, so all the trash collectors have to do is lift the band, take the bag, and add another. There's no reaching into a dark nasty can, no picking up and dumping out, and no gross garbage water pooling at the bottom for months or more.

Traditional Garbage Can

A local friend tells me the reason behind this system is less about efficiency than safety. The simple post-hoop-bag replaced the traditional concrete can holder after miscreants had caused a bunch of damage in 1995 hiding bombs inside garbage cans. To reduce that threat, the cans were replaced with clear plastic bags. Now not much can hide in the new garbage cans of Paris.

An additional benefit that may not be relevant in Paris but which would certainly be a big improvement in American cities is that, in the same way that police can see bombs in a clear plastic bag, people who collect bottles and cans don't have to reach into a can (or turn it over) to see if there are any recyclables inside. It makes life easier for those who make their living this way, and cuts down on the mess that results from those who do so inconsiderately.

But garbage on the street isn't really a problem in Paris, or at least it wasn't in the places I went. The reason, I'm guessing, has a lot to do with the sheer amount of places to put garbage. The post-hoop-bag is ubiquitous in the city. It's hard to turn your head without seeing one. Or more.

Quantity of Garbage Collectors on Paris Street

This is a European model American cities should follow. Cities need garbage collection infrastructure, so it might as well be cheap. If it can also be highly dispersed, maintained efficiently and used effectively by the public, that's even better.

And if it does things really well, it might even end up in a photo album from some nerd's vacation.


Nate Berg

Nate Berg is a former contributing editor for Planetizen and a freelance journalist. He has contributed to The New York Times, National Public Radio, Wired, Fast Company, Metropolis, Next American City, Dwell, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, and Domus, among others. Nate studied print journalism and environmental planning at the University of Southern California. He lives in Los Angeles.

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