A Place for Everything

And everything in  its place.

Vienna is a very tidy city, on the whole. There are signs everywhere telling people where to put their car, their trash, recycling, cigarette butts, doggie doo, and more.  It might seem like a strange thing to blog about, but this absolutely fascinates me. I come by it honestly. My dad used to be a city manager and my parents recycled and composted long before it was cool or convenient to do so. I’ve always had to be more aware of where my stuff ended up than most Americans are. I mean God forbid I should have taken one step toward the trash can with a banana peel when I was a kid… 🙂

Anyway, it’s a habit that stuck, and I am happy to see my kids also know to ask where to put their banana peels as well. (Dear kids: one day you’ll thank me, you’ll see!) Vienna takes this to a city-wide level. What would it be like if everyone actually had to think about where to put their trash? Well, pretty much like this: Recycling stations like this can be found every few blocks. There are over 6,000 of these stations for a city of about 1.6 million people. Apartment buildings and houses also have their own, smaller bins. Practically everything is collected, either at the household, the neighborhood, or the district level (large items, e-waste, toxic items, etc.).

No construction debris, no mattresses, no TVs etc. With the address of the place you can dump those items helpfully provided.

Here’s some color-coded labels from the bins, complete with this booger guy who “yells” in German and glares at you to make sure you get it right.

White glass.
Colored glass.

And, by the way, please don’t dump glass between 10 PM and 6 AM because it’s noisy. Austrians roll up the carpet at 10 PM in residential neighborhoods, and believe me, you do not want to be the one caught disturbing the peace.

Metal containers.
All paper and cardboard.
Plastic containers.

Got items to donate? Many waste stations also have bins for reusable items collected for charity shops. This one is for the Red Cross. “Second-hand” (they use the English term for some reason) is a big thing with the thrifty, environmentally conscious Austrians. And (this is really cool) the city government also has 50 subsidized appliance repair shops where you can take your toaster or TV to be repaired instead of tossing it!

Please no broken clothing or bedding, and naturally, you will bundle your shoes in pairs. Thank you for your understanding.

Had enough? Well there is also a municipal composting program which collects over 100,000 metric tons per year of food and yard waste and hauls it to a giant composting facility. Every house or apartment building gets one of these cans. All you have to do is dump your stuff in there and put it out just like the trash for pickup. All the parks and public areas in the city are fed with this “black gold,” and individuals can also take some home to use in their yards or community garden plots. Very cool.

Household “bio-waste” container.

What about stuff that doesn’t go anywhere else? Well, there isn’t that much of it left, but bins are provided. A medium-sized apartment building on my street has two of these bins for the whole complex.

For the rest.

Trash is burned in incinerators which also provide power and heat to significant portions of the city. One of these plants, which happens to be very near my apartment, was even decorated by the artist Hundertwasser.

How cool is this?

Don’t even think about littering. The patrolling “Waste-Watchers” might get you. There are over a hundred of these helpful individuals whose job is to ” inform Viennese residents about the city’s wide range of waste disposal facilities.” And to slap them with helpfully hefty fines if they don’t comply—up to a thousand Euros, yikes.

European cities nearly all have a major problem with dog crap. There just is no nice way to put it. When you have millions of apartment-dwelling dogs being walked every day on city streets, you are going to end up seeing a lot of unpleasant, stinky little piles, as well as occasionally stepping in them if you aren’t careful. Seriously, it is really yucky.

The Viennese have a solution for this, too. There is now a 36 Euro fine for not picking up after your dog. Trash cans are provided on almost every street corner for all waste, but with a helpful sign to remind you to PUT YOUR DOG POOP HERE. There are also little stands with free baggies that say, in broad Österreichisch, “Ein Sackerl fur mein Gackerl” which translates as “a little bag for my poop” (the G-rated term…) There’s still more than enough dog poop to go around, but compared to say, Prague or Paris, it’s not too bad.

“Is this your sausage?” Which colloquially means “is it worth it to you?” So, what they are saying is “is this sausage worth 36 Euros to you?” With big brown eyes.

All of this is, of course, more government intrusion than most Americans would ever want to deal with, at least right now. But the thing is, it works. Vienna is widely considered to be a model for urban waste management. The city recycles or composts about 40 percent of its total waste (the percentage is higher for household waste). Nearly everything else is used to fuel power plants. Only 3 percent goes into landfills. No wandering trash barges here.

So, OK, I’m a garbage geek. But, I am pretty sure we’re all going to have to starting thinking harder about where our stuff comes from and where it goes before too long. It’s interesting to get a close look at a city that is so far ahead of us on that inevitable curve.


  1. The Netherlands had a similar set up but nothing as cool and as wide reaching as this. I love it! Especially when looking out my window (in Mozambique) at a broken country with garbage EVERYWHERE. They are trying to start recycling here – but it has so far to go. Wish the US would get on track with this. It just makes sense.


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