Can garbage make our life comfortable? Can rubbish possibly educate or entertain us? Dear reader, if you wish to get an answer to these bizarre questions, let me take you to the centre of a furnace, where temperature reaches as high as 850 degrees Celsius. It may not sound like the most pleasant destination, but I promise, you will not be disappointed at the end of this journey!
I am going to tell you about what I think is the most intriguing waste treatment facility in the world. It is located in the Spittelau area of Vienna. During my recent trip to Austria, I got an opportunity to visit this facility operated by Wien Energie World Spittelau, commonly called just Spittelau. But first, let me recall the history of this establishment in brief. It started as a waste incineration plant. Incineration means destroying waste by burning over a very high heat in a secured facility. The Spittelau waste incineration plant was built between 1969 and 1971. Since then, a major share of Vienna’s waste has been incinerated at this site in the 9th district of Vienna. In 1987, a fire destroyed major sections of the plant. Instead of tearing it down, it was rebuilt. The mayor of Vienna at that time, Helmut Zilk, wanted even more though: the new Spittelau waste incineration plant should be especially clean and set new standards in protecting the environment. In addition, the new Spittelau should be a work of art. Since then, the former utility building has combined waste, energy, art and education in a fascinating way.
The environmentalist, artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser was tasked with designing the new plant. The building was finished in 1992. The previously sober and functional structure was transformed into a unique work of art which is not only a successful example of a harmonious marriage of technology, ecology and art, but also makes a major contribution to the reduction of “visual pollution” of the urban environment.
Its colourful façade, irregular structures, the golden ball on the chimney, roof greenery and planted trees have made the new Spittelau unmistakable and a Viennese landmark at par with St Stephen’s Cathedral and the Riesenrad Ferris wheel. Now, they proudly claim: in Vienna, waste is also art and entertainment!
The colourful colossal façade was enough to draw attention because of its peculiar artwork. Nonetheless, during my visit, I also wanted to know what hides behind that façade, and I did not have to wait long. Four other visitors who joined me were postgraduate students of an Austrian engineering university. Domestic and commercial waste is delivered by up to 250 trucks per day. The waste is weighed by a platform scale and stored in a waste hopper with a capacity of around 7,000 cubic metres. Then, the waste is fed into two incinerator lines capable of handling 18 tons per hour. The plant incinerates some 250,000 tons of municipal waste a year.
Vienna’s waste is well-utilised to ensure comfort and well-being for its citizens. The incineration of waste produces hot exhaust fumes which turn water in pipes into steam. The steam is fed into a turbine which drives a generator to produce electricity. Annually, this thermal waste treatment plant at Spittelau produces 120 gigawatt hours of electricity and 500 gigawatt hours of district heating, which means heating for more than 60,000 Vienna households and electricity for the equivalent of 50,000 households. District cooling is another environment-friendly facility offered by Spittelau for urban areas. The principle behind the production of district cooling is similar to that of district heating. The heat produced is converted into cooling energy by heat exchangers before being distributed to customers. Spittelau is one of largest producers of district cooling in Vienna, with a capacity of 17 megawatts.
The Spittelau facility has a series of hi-tech filter systems in order to clean the flue gases produced. The bulk of the plant is taken up by sophisticated flue gas scrubbing systems and an ultra-modern dioxin destruction facility. The first-phase scrubbers remove hydrogen chloride, hydrogen fluoride and dust, while the second phase removes sulphur dioxide before the flue gases go through the final stage of treatment, selective catalytic reduction. The purified flue gas is released from the chimney at a height of 126 metres.
The power plants of Spittelau do not only provide clean energy, but are also a part of Vienna’s skyline, with their artistic and innovative designs. Tours are offered to let visitors take a peek behind the scenes of this technology and learn more about environmental and climate protection measures. On a tour of the plant, visitors get an insight into Vienna’s waste, recycling and disposal system, as well as the environmentally-friendly generation of thermal heat and hot water. During my tour, I came across several groups of school children learning about the basics and applications of energy science through interactive knowledge sessions and fun-filled games.
Wien Energie World Spittelau is a work of art that is full of life. It arranges events like art exhibitions and musical concerts. The district-heating open air event was first held here in 1998. Every year, this programme held on the forecourt of the thermal waste incineration plant is a must-go event for thousands of music lovers. The Who’s Who in the international music scene like James Brown, Bob Geldof, Bonnie Tyler, Manfred Mann, Herbie Hancock, Sergio Menders and Joe Zawinul and many others have already played at Spittelau. The Heiss und Kalt (hot and cold) exhibition series hosted by Wien Energie provides the entire population of Vienna with free access to art. Artists from various genres have been publicly displaying their works here since 2006. The results are diverse—besides paintings and artwork, Heiss und Kalt also showcases less well-known forms of art, such as projections, video art, sculptures, sounds and installations. The message is clear: the waste problem can be managed artfully and artistically.
Thus, the Spittelau is more a landmark for Vienna than a waste incineration facility. Vienna was awarded with the prize “World City Closest to Sustainable Waste Management” in 2010 for its achievements in the area of sustainable waste management. The message from Vienna is that the waste problem can be managed successfully and that waste, in a country with much higher environmental standards than ours, is not a problem but a part of the solution and national pride.
Dr Biswas Karabi Farhana is an environmental scientist and a professor at the Department of Environmental Science and Management, North South University.