A story by Eng. Ulrike Volk, Head of Public Relations at the Municipal Department 48 of the City of Vienna, on the achievements in collecting, processing and reducing waste in the city.

The Austrian Presidency of the EU Council is running. And we often mention Vienna, a city where I have been on a number of occasions. City of great emperors, brilliant music, Sisi, Mozart, but also wise management. It may sound strange, but when I think about it, the words of our famous Bai Ganyo come to my mind: "What to look at in Vienna, a city like a city: people, houses, show offs..." Yes… but no. Because in Vienna there is always something to be seen, to be learnt, and to be taken as a successful experience. It would be enough if our rulers, who often walk down there, would want to do something like it, and that they do not think like Aleko's hero. Look, listen, and transfer good practices. One of them is waste management. How do they do it in the Austrian capital, which for several years heads the top of the cities to live in rating? Here is what Ulrike Volk, Head of Public Relations at Department MA 48 "Waste Management, Street Cleaning and Vehicle Fleet" said about the City of Vienna, in front of the "Diplomatic Spectrum" team:

The Separate Collection

Our department has about 3,400 employees responsible for handling and collecting municipal waste. Paper, glass, metals, plastic bottles are separated from the general waste. Every building has general waste containers, as well as ones for paper waste. While those for glass, metal, plastic, bio-waste are usually in public places. They are located on the sidewalks or near the parks. The principle is the following - where there is a large amount of waste accumulated, a container is assigned to it. For example, in the parks, except for general waste, containers for bio-waste are needed. For what the households throw, but not regularly and not in large quantities, we have special places where people can take their garbage. They are used for problematic products such as batteries, old appliances, furniture... I will give you examples. There people can hand over old electrical appliances that still work and can be used by other people. Books that we no longer need can be taken too. They are placed in old telephone booths, and anyone who wants can pick them up and read them. There are also special sectors at each such place, where toys that are no longer to be used can be given away.

Containers in each such place are marked with different colors and symbols, depending on what kind of waste they are destined for. The bio-waste is placed in those with brown lids, the paper one in the yellow ones, the metal in the ones with blue, the glass in the white ones... One does not even need to speak the language to understand where to put the garbage, the symbols on them will help everyone.

For municipal and general waste, citizens pay a garbage fee. But for the other types everything is free. This is done in order to encourage citizens to dispose waste separately.

Three waste incineration plants and one landfill

Since 2009, all household waste in Vienna has been burned. The city has 3 installations for this purpose, which are operated by a subsidiary of the Municipality. That means that they are public, not private. What makes us proud is that the municipality is able to process and utilise all waste. Only recyclable waste is handled by private companies. So the municipality has an idea of how much bio-waste comes from public kitchens and restaurants, how much processing equipment there is, what their technical condition is, are they up to the technical standard. The municipality provides short routes for waste transportation. It knows how much is invested and how much more has to be invested. It is very important for us that the municipality knows, guides and organizes everything connected with the waste in the city. It has the know-how. It also deals with ways of avoiding waste production and informing the population about it.

All three waste incinerators in Vienna produce electricity, heating and cooling for air conditioners. The production of the latter is, however, a relatively new sector, not used in private households, and there are still few consumers –usually universities or large companies.

The interesting and good thing about these installations is their location in the city, which, on one hand, shortens the waste transport route, on the other it is very convenient in terms of infrastructure for the use of the energy they produce. The ratio of its usability under these conditions is 76 out of 100. If these installations were somewhere outside the city, it would still be necessary to create the infrastructure to supply households.

Vienna also has a landfill in which only the remainder of the burnt municipal waste is disposed. Earlier, this was the place where all household rubbish was gathered, and there is still some left since then. The outcome is carbon dioxide and other gases that make methane, which is very harmful to the atmosphere. This occurs because different microorganisms act in the waste that is left. That is why methane is sucked using vacuum out of the landfill and treated to obtain heat. At present, about 2,000 households are supplied with electricity from this landfill and the methane. Of course, the trend is declining because new waste is not stored there anymore.

In our Department 48 there is one

Biogas plant

There are many bio-waste containers in Vienna, which are mainly used by large kitchens and restaurants, but also private households. Bio waste is processed into natural biogas that is used for energy. In addition, in Department 48 there is also a compost facility for the production of bio fertilizer. From the containers, including those in the vegetable gardens and parks, 100,000 tons of bio-waste are collected annually! Of these, 45,000 tons of compost is produced, which is so good that it is certified for the best quality not only in Austria but also in Europe and is used in organic farming. Part of it is given to the Viennese free of charge. Some of the product is given to municipal and agricultural companies. However, the largest part goes to a plant factory for the production of special flower soil. It is not owned by the municipality but it works for it. This soil is sold at our landfills. It is very important to us and we are proud of the fact that where people go to throw their waste they can also see for themselves that useful things come out as a result. This encourages them to collect separately.

The Tradition

In Vienna, waste incineration has a long history. The first small factories for this occurred in the 1960s for the treatment of the discarded waste of large hospitals. Then, in the 1970s, the Spittelauinstallation was built, which is now artistically styled by the architect Hundertwasser. Initially, it was pretty ugly. But after a fire, they made Hundertvasser a suggestion to re-shape it. He himself was an activist in the environmental movement and said he would pledge his name and prestige if he would really get convinced that this installation will meet all the requirements for exhaust gases and atmospheric pollution. And once this happened, he re-formed it artistically.

Openness and Transparency

Before the last installation in the city, which was the most modern one, there was a process of discussion and planning of how and where to make it, on a broad public basis, with the participation of various non-governmental organizations of the City of Vienna and companies. It was discussed that the amount of waste is constantly increasing. And about the way we have to deal with it - whether to export it to another province, for example in Lower Austria, or to make the factory somewhere in the city. All factors had been assessed –the financial, the environmental impact, the fact of how many jobs it will create, how much energy will be produced etc. Many opinions came together and it was concluded that the installation should be located in the city because that is indeed most effective. And once the time for granting the permit came, there were no problems.

Today, the installation works and is located in an industrial area. There are not many citizens living there. Anyway, protests or objections did not occur, thanks to the pre-training that involved various environmental movements such as Global 2000 and Greenpeace. We have the trust of the citizens and it is very important for us not to lose it. Of course, we also put more money into this installation, above all for exhaust purification. In 2008, when it was opened, a big party was held with the participation of the citizens. They were given the opportunity to look at it. In general, our policy is openness and transparency. Citizens can also look at the landfill, which is located in something like a park, and the compost installation. Therefore people know that we do not hide anything and do nothing towards their disadvantage.

Communication with citizens is very important

Only with communication we can win their help for the separation of waste. It is also very important to communicate with our employees who promote our policy in their families and in their friendly circle. The department also conducts a lot of explanatory work in schools, kindergartens, at various large mass events. There our employees explain the meaning of waste separation and answer any questions. In addition, every September - one weekend, we hold a Waste Festival (or garbage festival) - with lots of music and fun. More than 30,000 people visit it, and we do our best to keep them informed.

Since 1988 we have a hotline for waste. The number is written on absolutely all containers and every citizen can call and ask questions or make a complaint if a container is full or hasn‘t been picked up in a few days. Around 60-70 thousand calls are recorded on this phone, annually.

We, of course, also work with the new media. You can find us on youtube, facebook. We also have apps that show where our disposal sites are, how they can be reached, which is the closest point for metal or plastic for example, and which is the shortest route to it.

Another task of ours is

waste avoidance

For example, for many large events, we have reusable cups that can be used up to 300 times. This project started in 2005 when we convinced the organizers of major events that this makes sense. We also have a law which requires the usage of reusable cups on events with 1000, or more, participants.

Our latest creation in the last year is to sell the valuable things that are gathered in the waste. On our disposal sites there are many usable and nice toys, clothes, books, compact discs, gramophone records. Things are sorted by kind. Then some of them are donated to various charities, but most are sold in our second-hand shop. All goods are in impeccable condition. You will not find pants with a hole or an electric appliance that is not checked and does not work. There are many good dishes, whole sets. Our goal is to attract even citizens who otherwise would not enter such stores with its beautiful arrangement and the type of goods. The very own furniture of the shop is second hand. Its walls are made of old pallets or cable pulleys - yet another example that old things can make sense. This form of offering valuable things from waste has existed since 1988, but it once looked more like a marketplace, and it was competing with other marketplaces that were so numerous. That's why we decided to create something completely new - to attract a different audience. For example, people who want to save money, people who want to do something about environmental protection, and so on. And because the income of sales is given to an animal welfare organization, we also have clients who want to do something about the animals. And indeed it is very successful.

Besides, there are not only disposed items in our store. The municipality of Vienna has a lost and found service, where lost things are kept for a certain period and people can look for them. But after a while, they also go for sale.

The best is the waste that never occurs. And we are trying to do the best in this direction. It depends on us how much waste we will produce.

Interesting small solutions...

Besides the already mentioned ideas, we have many more. For example we have turned old containers, which are no longer in use, into rainwater collectors; they can be bought at the disposal site.

We also created a recyclable bag. We send one free of charge to all households to bring their waste to the dump, but we also offer it for purchase. We have similar bags for Christmas and New Year packages - they are of different designs, three different sizes produced in an ecological way...

Our aim is to use as much waste as possible in the future. Now, together with the Technical University, we are considering how to extract phosphorus from the sludge made from the water purification of the Wastewater Treatment Plant of the City of Vienna, which is currently being incinerated. Of course, our constant goal is to avoid and reduce waste.

What I forgot to mention is that the cleanliness of the city in recent years has improved a lot. For example, since 2008, we have the right to impose fines if someone throws waste or leaves bulky ones on the street, or does not collect "the waste" of their dog. And we do it quite successfully. However, before we began to impose fines, we endeavoured to ensure the right conditions so that the citizens do not make such violations. We put some special ashtrays on the street. As well as boxes with bags for dogs. There are annually 60,000 such bags in the landfill, and there are 55,000 dogs in Vienna. This is a good quota for success.

Hygiene controllers

Currently, the fine for dumped waste is 36 euro and cannot be appealed. It is issued, for example, for dog waste or tossed cigarette butt in the streets. We have hygiene controllers that are mobile and are walking around parks and public places. If there is any complaint or they themselves have seen a violation, they first tell you to remove the dog’s “waste" or pick up your cigarette butt. If you do not, they report this and your fine could be up to € 2,000!

These hygiene controllers are very loved by people. Sometimes they call and say: "Here's where somebody left their furniture, you can send a supervisor to warn him". But we advertise them in a humorous and fun way. For example, everywhere in the parks there are plaques with a cute dog painted. Before it used to say, "Never go out with the dog without a bag!" Now, when bags being handed out and fines, it says: "Is it worth paying 36 euro?!" That's why we have 3400 places where bags can be taken for free!

Some of these solutions are simple and do not cost much, but are effective. For example, paper containers were gray earlier. And by placing a gray container next to a gray building, it does not impress at all. Now they are different color, there are cheerful logos and humorous inscriptions that attract attention. Education is really very important. But trust is also important. Because if people do not trust us, they will not act.

This information was up to date in August 2016 when a "Diplomatic Spectrum" team visited Vienna with the support of Eurocomm-PR Wien.

Photos: "Diplomatic Spectrum". On them: Eng. Ulrike Folk, Head of Public Relations at MA 48 "Waste Management, Street Cleaning and Vehicle Fleet" of the City of Vienna; some of the interesting small solutions for waste; Ulrike Folk with the "Diplomatic Spectrum" team.