This post by Christian Schnurr, a student of the RCC-LMU Environmental Studies Certificate Program, stems from his research conducted as part of the exhibition project “Ecopolis: Understanding and Imagining Munich’s Environments.”
An opera about rubbish disposal? Die Stadt, composed by Nélida Béjar and directed by Björn Potulski, premiered on 14 December 2016 in the Schwere Reiter theater, as part of the celebration of 125 years of waste management in Munich. Based on the Epic of Gilgamesh, the opera thematizes the structure and order of a civilization, focusing the spotlight especially on waste. Instead of professional performers, employees of the Abfallwirtschaft München (AWM), Munich’s waste management company, sing all of the pieces in the show! Most people would probably not have seen this coming 125 years ago, especially since waste management in Munich began not as a voluntary act, but one of necessity.
The Nineteenth Century: Growth, Waste, and Hygiene
Munich’s population grew rapidly in the Industrial Age, rising from 170,000 to 500,000 between 1870 and 1900. Hygienic conditions were poor, as people disposed of waste in cesspits, in yards that were cleared only once a year. Munich’s magistrate intervened in 1891 to control diseases like typhus and cholera, enacting the city’s first waste regulations. Household waste now had to be put into rubbish bins, which were collected by private transport companies: Aschenmänner (ash men) emptied waste into bins on Harritschwägen (horse carriages) and transported it to collective cesspits on the city’s outskirts.
When residents in the area started complaining about dust and the smell from the pits, the city decided to build a waste management facility outside of Munich in the village of Puchheim. Here, workers separated and reused waste. They removed ash with rotary sieves, using it to create humus for acidic meadows or barren moor grounds. Larger waste went onto a conveyor belt and laborers manually searched through it for recyclable materials like bones, glass, paper, rags, leather, metal, wood, or cork. The rest was burned, supplying energy to the factory.
This model of waste management was successful for the next four decades, and the industry was highly esteemed. In 1909, the Hausunratabfuhranstalt (household waste removal institution) established headquarters on Sachsenstraße in Untergiesing with workshops for the horse carriages and a villa for its director.
Waste Management during World Wars I and II
During the First World War, Munich’s waste management faced severe problems. As the majority of workers were away on military duties, rubbish accumulated in housing areas, leading to odors and fears about the spread of diseases. Towards the end of the fighting, soldiers and prisoners of war were enlisted into the waste removal effort.
The rubbish problem during the Second World War was even worse. Having lost two-thirds of their staff to the war effort, transport companies used forced labor instead. Train traffic was often interrupted, cutting off waste transport to Puchheim. Organized waste management later ended entirely when Puchheim ceased operations due to a lack of repair parts. Rubbish was then deposited in bomb craters or depressions, which is how both Olympia Hill and Luitpold Hill originated.
After the war’s end, the situation within Munich was disastrous: the city center was suffering under a plague of rats, and the danger of an epidemic was immediate. The removal of the debris required time and effort. In 1949, Munich’s mayor, Thomas Wimmer, famously called citizens to action with the words “Rama dama” (Bavarian for we clear up). The difficult and traumatic post-war cleaning experience made the redevelopment of waste management one of the highest priorities for the military government and citizens.
Waste Management after the War
Around 1950, companies like Opel, Faun, and Daimler-Benz began the motorization of the municipal rubbish disposal, increasing the speed and efficiency of removal sufficiently to handle large amounts of waste in the city. Since the Puchheim site had never been rebuilt, the city council decided to construct a new plant in Großlappen. The opening in 1954 marked the relaunch of organized waste disposal in Munich. The recycling process worked similarly to how it had in Puchheim: magnets collected iron from the waste, while paper, textiles, glass, and pig feed were manually separated. Since the facilities lacked an incinerator, workers piled residue that could not be recycled next to Fröttmaning, a nearby farming village. Shortly afterwards, the village was cleared to make space for the growing waste hill. Only Fröttmaning’s small church Heilig Kreuz, built in 815, was spared.
As the population grew, Munich struggled with the rising quantities of rubbish. Residents complained about the smell and smoke emerging from the Großlappen site, leading the city to develop waste incineration systems. In 1964 and 1969, two incinerators began operating in Unterföhring and Thalkirchner Straße. While these incinerators produced electricity, they also emitted exhaust gases, making the technique highly controversial.
Further problems arose. Long-distance heating and oil firing replaced spacious ovens, making it impossible for city residents to continue burning bulky waste at home. Instead, the city established a collection service and collection points for bulky rubbish. Key features of today’s rubbish service emerged during this time; for example, plastic rubbish bins replaced sheet metal ones, and the signature color orange became mandatory for workers and vehicles.
In the 1980s, increasing waste led to public demonstrations and citizens’ initiatives like “Save Munich’s North.” As a result, the city developed a new model of waste management, which is still in effect today. The key principle of this model is: “Waste prevention before recycling, recycling before incineration, incineration before disposal.”
The city also introduced a three-bin system in the 1990s for the separation of paper, biological waste, and residual waste within households. Other innovations included the detoxification of incineration gases, segregated removal of hazardous waste, and the establishment of recycling depots. Early successes followed: in 1990 the amount of waste decreased from the previous year for the first time. The disposal of untreated household rubbish ended three years later, and in 1997 one of the incinerators was permanently closed down. Public relations campaigns accompanied the new waste management model, helping to promote environmental consciousness among city residents.
AWM and Current Waste Issues
In 2002, the office for waste management became Abfallwirtschaft München (AWM). Unlike other cities, Munich did not privatize its waste management. AWM is still a municipal company and operates on a cost-covering, rather than profit-oriented, model—something many see as a major reason for its success.
Today, waste management is also an important economic sector. The AWM supplies a large number of households with heating from its incinerators and with electricity from biogas. It also sells several organic products like potting soil, bark mulch, humus, and compost.
Challenges remain, however. One is the issue of closing the combined heat and power station in the north of Munich, which is essential for associated waste incineration. Another is the processing of new materials that can neither be recycled nor burned, such as carbon fibers. Günther Langer , head of the AWM office, suggests that waste management companies should also expand their lobbying to gain influence in political decisions in Germany and the EU, if we are to achieve equitable ecological regulations.