Someone’s Gotta Do It

Bins full of sorted junk, sewage, waste – and all that trash…For all cities, garbage is a fact of life that must be managed – but for Vienna, waste also provides good jobs, clean energy and oddly enough, enormous civic pride.

Early morning on a sunny Tuesday. A deafening roar through the window, shattering sleep. It is the sound of glass and metal being poured from bins into the weighty backsides of garbage disposal trucks, hauling off their loot to the nearest depot. Annoyed by the noise? Don’t be. This is the sound of the city cleaning up its act so the rest of us can go about our lives.

Vienna waste management and street cleaning
The MA 48 in their orange workwear are renown throughout the city.

A city doesn’t get voted second-cleanest capital in the EU – with 90% of the population satisfied – without getting hands dirty. Despite the noise of recyclables collected in the early hours, it can be easy to forget that the worker bees of the MA 48 (the municipal department for waste management and street cleaning) are cleaning up after us. From the crusts of our break-time sandwiches to the beer bottles chucked into a bin on the Donauinsel after a sunny afternoon with friends, the silent warriors of Vienna’s waste disposal team are ever vigilant, making sure that our garbage is properly disposed of. And turned – in the best case – into something we can use again.

One Man’s Trash

Big, colorful dumpsters are tucked into corners or behind leafy bushes around the city, to ease the separation of waste for recycling, which the city relies on residents to do. Ask any schoolchild: Red is for paper, yellow for plastic, brown for compost and blue for metal cans. The boxes for glass have two compartments, clear and colored. Most recyclable material is collected by companies that put it to new use; paper waste is handled by the city directly, which sends it to Mühlwasserstraße in the 22nd district to be made into cardboard. Restmüll (literally “leftover garbage”) goes into the big black bins – but even it serves a purpose: Most of it is burned for energy.

“Everything the Viennese people throw into the black dumpsters gets brought to us,” says Martina Krobath, who has been working for over six years as an energy consultant with Wien Energie at the Müllverbrennungsanlage (waste incineration plant) Spittelau. “It basically works the same way as gas heating in your house,” she explains. But instead of burning natural gas, they burn trash to heat water, launching a heating cycle “but on a much larger scale.”

Vienna waste management and street cleaning
The MA 48 composting plant turns organic waste into compost, thereby saving up to 9,000 tons of CO2.

Vienna has a total of four waste incineration plants, the oldest of which, in Flötzersteig, has been in commission since 1963. But the most famous – so famous that tourists come to take pictures – is the Fernwärme Wien plant where Krobath works, finished in 1971.

The exterior was designed by the famous Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (whose chosen name roughly translates to “peace-rich hundred waters”). Admiration for Fernwärme Wien has spread even to Japan, where the mayor of Osaka built an incinerator in homage. The use of color, rejection of straight lines and fascination with organic textures and silhouettes make the incinerator appear more art than industry. But the plant in fact generates “40 megawatts of thermal energy and 15 megawatts of electrical energy every day,” Krobath said, made possible by upgrades that followed a fire in 1987.

The 220,000 black dumpsters in Vienna collectively gather more than 500,000 tons of residual waste every year. Since 2008, all of it has been sent to power-generating incinerators, supplying some 330,000 homes and businesses in Vienna with heat and electricity.

There is a downside: Power plants burning refuse and releasing smoke are not entirely without a carbon footprint. While the smoke is heavily filtered and cleansed – it is pollution nonetheless. In 2019 there was roughly 26,000 tons of CO2 emissions from Spittelau alone. As societies everywhere seek greener energy solutions, Vienna has been making important strides toward being more environmentally conscious.

In 2011, Vienna’s former Mayor Michael Häupl revealed his plans for “Smart City Wien,” which aims to fulfill the goals of the EU Strategic Energy Technology Plans (SET-Plan) and accelerate the development of low-carbon energy technologies in Europe by 2050.

A City Mirrored Underground

But what about the human waste, the part that isn’t thrown into the trash? Just what happens to the sewage? To find out, we must look below the streets, to the city’s intestines.

This is the kingdom of MA 30, Wien Kanal (sanitation services) – which shares the subterranean territory with MA 31, Wien Wasser (water supply services). Historically, Vienna’s sewers have had a leg up on other European cities. In 1793, it was the only city in all of Europe with a full water supply and sanitation network. These ancient structures still form the basis of today’s sewer system, which reaches 99% of Viennese households and spans 2,400 km.

Piping sewage is only half the job; waste-water also has to be cleaned and purified before it is released into the Danube. Every day, 15 tons of sewage are processed and disposed of at the EBS Wien wastewater treatment plant in Simmering. After several stages of mechanical filtering, waste travels through a lowered basin of slow-flowing water, allowing larger impurities to sink to the bottom – around 30% of waste. This is followed by a biological cleansing, in which a wide range of added microorganisms begin decomposing the waste, deconstructing it into its chemical components. Then the water is syphoned off from the sludge of microorganisms and their waste. The remaining water moves through additional cleansing stations, increasingly purified until it is completely free of pollutants. This water is then pumped out into the river. The whole process takes about 20 hours. The leftover mud is dried, burned and used to generate energy in the plant.

Vienna waste management
Vienna’s canals are tended to by the MA 30.
The canal network is also famous as a setting for Carol Reed’s 1949 movie The Third Man.

Vienna’s 220,000 black dumpsters gather more than 500,000 tons of residual waste, which are burned to power 330,000 homes. 

In Vienna’s very own sewage plant, waste water is not only treated but also generates energy.

As with garbage incineration, Vienna has also managed to turn the dirty and industrial process of wastewater management into a cultural attraction. Tourists pay to walk the sewers, thanks to the legendary film The Third Man, released in 1949. Set in a post-World War II Vienna, director Carol Reed filmed on location in the city to create the now-famously eerie, noir atmosphere of Vienna’s underground water and sewer system, and one of the most popular sites on “The Third Man Tour.”

Where others see dreck, Vienna can create legends, and at least find a source of local pride.

So, the next time a garbage truck approaches your building and you brace for its symphony of scrapes and bangs, just remember: Someone’s gotta do it, and the Viennese are doing it in style.

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