This morning, the American Women’s Association arranged a tour of a heat-generating waste incineration plant. Why, might you ask, would a women’s group do such a thing? Well, for a start, this was the famous Fernwärme Spittelau, redesigned in 1987 by the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. So, it’s really cool-looking. (I am quite fond of Hundertwasser—he was truly eccentric, but in a big, and rather charming, way.)
But there’s more to the story than that. The Austrians, who may be the “greenest” people in the developed world, recycling some huge percentage of their household and industrial waste, are justifiably proud of their waste management and energy generation technology. The Spittelau facility alone converts about 250,000 metric tons a year of garbage into home and water heating for central Vienna in a process that is nearly environmentally neutral. In fact, the water that enters the plant to clean and cool the equipment is cleaner when it leaves the plant than when it came in from the Danube.
When it’s all sorted, incinerated and filtered, the leftover slag and ash is turned into concrete for construction projects. Only a tiny amount of toxic waste is left at the end of the process–this is buried deep in an old salt mine in the Alps. Still, our guide was visibly perturbed by the fact that 70,000 tons of the total mass incinerated consists of food waste. Clearly, he felt this was a hole to be plugged. Waste not, want not!