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Creating Value from Society's Waste: The Viennese Method

Trash. Just the sound of the word brings to mind rotten food, mountainous landfills, and general noxiousness. But what if a city turned this image on its head? What if trash became a city resource? What if landfills became a relic of the past?

This is the exact effort underway in Vienna, Austria. The oft-cited smartest city on the planet utilizes an enviable mix of capital investments, innovative policymaking, and public information campaigning to transform municipal waste into a source of city pride and a vital tool to meet their sustainability goals.

To tell this story of transition, let’s start at one of Vienna’s three world class incineration plants. Pfaffenau operates six miles southeast of the city center, and is a genuine tourist attraction. The sleek, modern, and very orange design is certainly a major driver of visitor interest--it's unusual to see a waste facility look so hip. But the plant also drives traffic due to what goes on inside.

Pfaffenau doesn’t just burn trash--it saves space and creates energy for the city. Every day up to 200 truckloads deliver 770 tons of non-recyclable waste to the facility’s Death Star-looking trash pit (see photos). The trash then moves through a maze-like process of sorting, burning, and other chemical reactions, leaving the plant with a mix of recyclable metal scraps and a ton of dust. In the end, Pfaffenau produces enough heat to warm 50,000 homes and enough electricity to power another 25,000. Numbers like that suggest it’s more appropriate to call Pfaffenau a power plant.

Pfaffenau joins with other waste facilities to create a tantalizing result: a city that doesn’t landfill. Since 2009, Vienna’s landfill ban means it replaces trash mountains with energy generation, product recycling, and biodegradable waste.

The landfill ban also pushed Vienna to adopt complimentary personal and business policies. To keep the streets clean, Vienna maintains 15,000 waste bins across the city. And those bins aren’t like America’s typical trash/recycling duo. Vienna separates their bins into seven categories, ranging from different glass colors to compost materials. To create financial stability, Vienna created a publicly-owned, private entity to manage Pfaffenau and other facilities. In turn, those facilities actually deliver a profit to the city.

Citizen communication is the final component in the efficient waste system. Viennese officials know that without citizen buy-in it would be difficult to meet its waste efficiency targets. Their strategy targets two different age groups. For the youth, the city created a ‘waste monster’ character that gets too big if it eats too much trash. Much like our Smokey Bear, the use of characters instills children with environmentally-friendly habits at a young age. For adults, a 350-person waste watching team offers sorting advice and administers fines to serial violators.

With investments and policies like this, waste no longer describes Vienna’s municipal trash services. Instead, Vienna forces cities across the world to reconsider what exactly constitutes a municipal resource, and how to create long-lasting value from everything a metropolitan area produces--even its trash. It’s a thought-provoking process that more cities need to consider.