This is a simple story but an important story. It is not a story about Mozart, Schnitzels or Klimt but a story which encapsulates an indispensable part of the utilitarian ethos of Vienna. Although it is rarely mentioned and probably not unique to the number one city, it is indispensable because of its forward-thinking simplicity. A system so elegant and precious it requires nothing more than a city to collect household organic waste and turn it into compost.

To comprehend a city or a nation, its standing in the world or its attitudes and traits, writers and observers inevitably try to deconstruct its people,  its history, its religion or its food. (Fun fact: Vienna is the only city in the world which has a cuisine named after it – Wienerküche. Which is why when many German speakers ask you if the English “kitchen” is really so bad, you should tell them that we, like you, mostly get ours from IKEA).

Then again, it might be language, humour, architecture, music, the quality of television, the playing of sport, attitudes to open spaces, recreation (in Vienna more sacred than a holy relic) or work. And of course politics, the social contract, approaches to healthcare, human rights and perhaps the rule of law.

These are all admirable lines of enquiry. Yet they are unmistakably complex, often leading to sweeping commentary caked in supposition and crude generalisation. In truth, this reveals very little and it is because of this that one must endeavour to revert to the innocuous or the unseen. In that to really understand how a city thinks, operates or its relationship to the wider world, one has to dig a little and consider what goes on behind the scenes, largely unnoticed, almost certainly taken for granted by the good city burghers in residence. This might include how their treat their environment, their protection of natural wonders and their philosophy concerning streets. But above all of these is waste collection.

Vienna has been at the forefront of waste separation and recycling since the 1970s. But the story of “biogenic waste management” (our story of collection, decomposition and reuse) begins 25 years ago when Vienna decided to separate and collect food scraps and garden “trimmings” (the word comes from the MA48 the Municipal Department for Waste Management, Street Cleaning and Vehicle Fleet). The aim from the start was the generation of high-quality compost but later, in 2007, this was extended into the realm of climate neutral energy with the generation of biogas from a specially built biomass power plant.

According to the MA48, the compost strategy is about integration into the local recycling system. Yes they want to produce high quality compost to boost your carrots and courgettes, but equally it is about taken a more forward-thinking and sustainable approach to organic waste disposal (presumably rather than landfill or being burnt). This means the cycle of collection and production is “fed” continuously with high quality residual matter (the trimmings and scraps from gardens, households and kitchens) although not bones, cooked foods and milk products for fear of contaminating the integrity of the compost and attracting Remy and his brother from Ratatouille.

There are 19 domestic waste collection centres dotted around Vienna and another 80 thousand green bins for individual households. We have one as does our neighbour although I have rarely seen him do anything in the garden except sit on his numerous arses and implore in a  jaunty voice “Leckerli, leckerli!” in a irksome attempt to exercise some control over his pitiable dogs. (Important linguistic aside: lecker means tasty in German-German and in this case refers to a doggie treat. If you say Lecker in Vienna instead of the more usual “köstlich” or “Das schmeckt ma” it will be assumed you are deviant and sent for psychiatric evaluation.)

So I have no idea what “trimmings” he is putting in his bin. Perhaps it is freshly excreted dog shit. Perhaps he eats a lot of root vegetables, creating a peeling mountain. Although judging by his girth, he would probably have to eat a bag of potatoes every week (admittedly, a lot of chips). In any case, these bins are emptied by 27 collection lorries once a week during the growing season and every other week during winter – for free. All in all this amounts to between 90 – 120 thousand tonnes of tree and shrubs, grass clippings, windfall fruit and plants every year (this equates to about a tenth of the total amount of rubbish collected in the city, the rest of which is mostly contrived of cigarette butts and 36 million doggy doo-doo bags*).

At the composting plant in the Lobau in Vienna (“Lo” in old German means “dense forest”) they produce somewhere between 40 to 50 thousand tonnes of compost each year, based on an average input of 100 thousand tonnes. The quality is such that in 2002 the Kompostgüteverband Österreich (the sexily named Austrian Compost Quality Society) awarded the MA48 the compost quality seal class A+ (only Donald Trump has a better quality of compost) a trademark protected under patent law based on the Austrian Quality Seal Ordinance. One for the dinner party, I know.

The “end product” (this is where I enter the story) is then made available free of charge to all citizens of Vienna. In shit-shovelling terms this means that more than 6,000 tonnes are collected annually by the population from the city’s waste collection centres. Although it is my contention that 5000 tonnes of this is nabbed by trailer wielding Hungarians and Slovaks who combine a day-trip to Vienna with a small detour to one of the Mistplätze (the municipal dumps) hosting the compost.

Although the compost for the private individual is free, one is, in theory, limited to “one cubic metre” (there are signs; this being Vienna, there is always a sign). Yet this system seems rather relaxed. One guy I saw this year was loading up the back of a mini-bus emblazoned with logos of one of the city’s six-star sex saunas. He had even brought his own shovel. I know this because I apparently pinched it. And no, I never found out why a sex-sauna would need so much recycled trimmings and plants. Alternatively, the compost can be delivered to your allotment (the iconic Schrebergarten) or private home. All you have to do is register online and pay the fee (109 Euro).

Since April 2009, part of the compost has been incorporated into the peat-free soil product Guter Grund creating first class Erde which can be purchased in 18 or 40 litre sized bags (5 Euro for the bigger bag) at all the municipal dumps in Vienna. In price terms this is about 40% cheaper than equivalent “branded” soil from your garden centre or DIY store although Hofer (Aldi) offer various soil types at much the same cost. Interestingly, the Guter Grund soil also contains “nitrogen-stabilised bark humus and thermally pressure-impregnated wood fibres” (yes, you heard it here first) and this mix results in a “loose and lightweight consistency” (rendering your outside space like a garden meringue).

But the soil and compost is not all about the voracious, greedy Vienna gardener. The MA48 is also charged with supplying the city’s agriculture and its Bio Bauer. These “clients” include the MA49 (Forestry Office and Urban Agriculture) who work some 1,000 hectares of cultivated land making it one of Austria’s biggest organic farmers. And the MA42 (Parks and Gardens) those terrific chaps keeping Vienna in wonderful flower displays and the perfect receptacles for rubbish discarded by people who should be buried to their neck in compost in the middle of Stadtpark.

And so there you have it, organic waste management – a short story. And what have I have learned? I have learned and experienced first-hand that the bio-waste strategy in Vienna is a wonderful thing. But more importantly I have also discovered that it is not simply a means to bring on your brassicas and flower displays. It’s about raising food yields and standards for farmers, soil protection and enrichment, groundwater protection (as nitrate release is virtually zero compared to commercial fertilisers) and climate preservation (organic farming uses considerably less CO2). And that is, as they say, lecker!

*According to MA48 cited on their website. 

© 2017 RJ Barrat