Friedensreich Hundertwasser

My dear friend Minich,

Thank you for your letter of 25 May, RE the Spittelau district heating station. I fully understand that you are against it, just like myself and many other concerned people. I personally grew up in the Brigittenau area, in other words very close by. But your letter lacks a practical alternative for today. We ourselves, all of us, every Viennese citizen, are responsible for our own refuse. If we produced no refuse, there would be none to burn. Let us boycott waste-incineration plants by simply not supplying them with refuse. Is that feasible in present-day Vienna? Refuse should be made a criminal offence. Refuse producers, packaging industries, refuse causers, refuse makers, i.e. all of us, should be severely punished in order to induce a radical avoidance of waste.

I spent a year agonizing over the same arguments for declining the project as yours, before finally deciding to accept the commission for the visual redesign of the plant. As you know, I am vehemently against all environmental pollutants and have always used all my means to promote a waste-free society. I am a realist, however. We cannot close our eyes to reality. All my utopias and dreams can be realized, as I am continually demonstrating. Having made a detailed study of what would happen if Spittelau did not go into operation, i.e. by thinking it through to the end, I decided the negative consequences are far worse. We won’t have a waste-free society tomorrow. But hopefully the day after tomorrow. I will fight vehemently for it, and we must all work daily towards it.

The negative points:

1. Refuse incineration in a built-up urban area with the fear that toxins will endanger people in the city.

2. Skipping the humus phase by incinerating.

The positive points:

1. Extensive, almost complete neutralization of toxic substances in refuse through incineration in new (state-of-the-art) denox filter plants.

2. Heat extraction: It will heat 10-15 % of Vienna.

3. Following my redesign the works will lose their ugliness, and thus the psychological distress caused by the earlier sight of its immense and visibly threatening pollution of the environment will be relieved.

I am certain that people will even feel pride at having this new symbol of Vienna in their neighbourhood, and this will increase the self-confidence and joy in life of an entire city district. Particularly when the filter plant and technical section are setting examples to the world. However paradoxical it sounds, I see the Spittelau station as a first call for a more attractive, waste-free environment. I am also proud that Austria is setting this example. The authorities, the bureaucrats, the politicians and responsible technicians have done all they could. We must acknowledge that. It is now up to us to prove that we can do even better and even more. Protests alone are of no help here. Only a new society, respecting the true ecologically-creative values which we establish ourselves, can bring about gradual change.

In detail:

Cold incineration (rotting in refuse dumps) has the same effects as hot incineration:

1. The same oxygen is consumed, i.e. removed from the air, simply over a longer period of time.

2. The air is enriched with the same amount of CO2, over a longer period of time.

3. Approximately the same toxins and pollutants escape into the air and water; it simply takes longer.

4. The same heat (energy) is produced, albeit unexploited. E.g., a piece of wood humifying and mineralizing over some 3-5 years releases the same energy as when burnt in an incinerator in just one minute.

5. The same ash (residue) is produced from a piece of wood in one minute (hot incineration) as over 3-5 years of cold incineration.

However: In refuse dumps, toxins are not rendered harmless and escape unchecked. This applies particularly to heavy metals, which in Spittelau will be recovered. Should refuse have to be removed from the city by lorry, whether to a dump or an incineration plant, let us say 30 km outside Vienna, the exhaust fumes and toxic emissions from the lorries’ internal combustion engines would pose a much greater and real danger to the population than the Spittelau district heating station, and an additional one at that. Consider this: Some 2000 tons of refuse per day, transported in some 300 lorries, each lorry emitting some 5 times the toxic fumes, unfiltered as an ordinary car. And that in the street at breathing level! Nor could the refuse be employed for Vienna’s district heating system. Vienna’s already potentially dangerous refuse dumps are almost full and can take no more.

The earth’s air layer is a communicating system. Whether a smokestack stands in Vienna or Alaska, the effects are virtually the same for all of earth’s inhabitants. Thus the deteriorating quality of our air can be confirmed anywhere in the world, whether in Europe, the Sahara desert or New Zealand. Our present ungraded refuse is so toxic that the compost obtained from it cannot even be used for gardening or agriculture. Horrifyingly, not even for forests. According to measurement and calculations, the level of dioxin emissions from the Spittelau stack will total less than 0,0000000004 (9 zeros) per m³ air. The amount of dioxin or foran actually inhaled per m³ air will be maximum 0,00000000000002 (13 zeros). I do not believe these figures to be fabricated. Even if they had fewer zeros, they would still be impressive. Proportional to the distance between earth and moon (380.000 km) the pollutant volume would cover a distance of 1,2 millimetres!

Spittelau’s future filtering capacity is quite incredible. In particular, up to 99 % of the toxic heavy metals cadmium, lead, zinc, chrome etc. will be filtered out and will reach neither our air nor our ground water. The slag and flue dust produced will be rendered highly innocuous by the denox system and effectively fully neutralized. This is one of the most outstanding features of the new plant. Moreover, a large part of the slag is bound in glass. The heavy metals are recovered from the filters. The concentration of heavy metals in the filters is far higher than in mines. And their recovery is very much more simple and energy-efficient. High levels of heavy metal are recovered which would otherwise not only be lost but would also poison us.

Cigarette smoke and car exhausts are far more dangerous in terms of dioxins carbon monoxides, nitrogen monoxides and so on. Just how many (unfiltered) stacks that equals is unimaginable. And posing a very real hazard down here at breathing level! Inhaling the exhaust fumes of a single car will kill a person in one minute. There are, I believe, 600.000 cars registered in Vienna! But still we all drive cars, even the environmentalists among us. What are the levels like here, I wonder? Still a point followed by several zeros? The obstacles to an (exhaust-free) motorized society are similar to those facing a waste-free society. Nothing can be achieved overnight. Before I decided to accept the commission, Lötsch helped me to formulate a letter of refusal. But he subsequently arrived at the opinion that obstructing the new incineration plant without supplying a realistic present alternative would cause greater ecological damage than its actual commissioning, and left the decision regarding its artistic refurbishing up to me.

In-depth studies on a global basis reveal what I already knew. Refuse separation offers no long-term escape from the ecological impasse. Compostable, largely non-toxic substances would have to be allowed to decompose separately. The only answer is total refuse avoidance by the entire human race: A wasteless society. And this total refuse avoidance could only be achieved thus: No fossil fuels, no noxious or radioactive materials to be extracted from the earth’s upper crust and brought to the surface! Once materials such as oil, coal and toxic substances have been brought to the earth’s surface, it makes no difference whether they are burnt or dumped in hot or cold incineration, whether they are turned into synthetic materials, plastic etc. or recycled, whether these plastic and other synthetic goods are incinerated or not incinerated, recycled or dumped. The final result is always the same. An atmosphere unbalanced by excess toxic substances and a world of poisoned humus, water, air, plants, animals and people.

Thus if the enormous concentration of fossil fuels, formed over millions of years, is incinerated at once, either hot or cold, i.e. by dumping, or if the products of oil and coal are incinerated or not incinerated, the catastrophic result is the same, with inevitable consequences for the next generations. There is only one way out. To extract no further fossil fuels from below ground as from now. Nature has taken millions of years to cover the toxic substances originally composing the earth’s surface with a layer of humus, vegetation and oxygen. By returning these toxins to the earth’s surface, we are violently recreating those original conditions of millions of years ago, when man could not yet live upon the earth.

I hope you appreciate the problem in its entirety. Immediate necessities demand that we choose not merely the lesser evil but the only possible current solution, and that we fight daily for a better future.

In the spirit of fairness and in the interests of the ecological debate which affects us all, please publish this letter alongside your own in the “Wiener Naturschutznachrichten”.

Cordially, Hundertwasser


Written in Vienna, 3 June 1988.

Published in:

Wiener Naturschutz-Nachrichten 4/88, Vienna (German)

Rand, Harry: Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Cologne: Taschen, 1991, pp. 70-71, abridged edition 1993 and edition 2003, p. 60-61

Schurian, Walter (ed.): Hundertwasser – Schöne Wege, Gedanken über Kunst und Leben. [Beautiful Paths – Thoughts on Art and Life] Munich: Langen Müller, 2004, pp. 268-272 (German)