A Surprisingly Cool Heating Plant

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!

The Spittelau plant before the 1987 fire that led to its reconstruction, and after Hundertwasser worked his magic.
The Spittelau plant before the 1987 fire that led to its reconstruction, and after Hundertwasser worked his magic.
The plant is not yet perfect, you see, so they are working on more improvements to the infrastructure. (The gold ornamentation is real gold!)
The plant is not yet perfect, you see, so they are working on more improvements to the infrastructure. (The gold ornamentation is real gold!)
The exhaust tower is 160 meters tall, with falcon nesting nooks built into the top by Hundertwasser himself. These have been continuously occupied by falcons for many years. The plant workers are very fond of them.
The exhaust tower is 160 meters tall, with falcon nesting nooks built into the top by Hundertwasser himself. These have been continuously occupied by falcons for many years. The plant workers are very fond of them.
The ubiquitous orange Wien Energie trucks making their twice-daily garbage delivery to the plant.
The ubiquitous orange Wien Energie trucks making their twice-daily garbage delivery to the plant.
All the trucks have ads reminding us to reduce, reuse, recycle, put our dog's poop where it belongs, etc.
All the trucks have ads reminding us to reduce, reuse, recycle, put our dog’s poop where it belongs, etc.
The big garbage hopper that the trucks dump their loads into.  A giant claw pulls out stuff that is too big to burn.  (Apparently, someone once managed to sneak an entire car into a container that ended up in here.)
The big garbage hopper that the trucks dump their loads into. A giant claw pulls out stuff that is too big to burn. (Apparently, someone once managed to sneak an entire car into a container that ended up in here.)
Every detail of the plant was designed by Hundertwasser in his particular organic style. Looking at some of the post-war Stalinist architecture here in Vienna, you can easily understand what he was reacting to. I would be tempted to decorate those concrete boxes myself!
Every detail of the plant was designed by Hundertwasser in his particular organic style. Looking at some of the post-war Stalinist architecture here in Vienna, you can easily understand what he was reacting to. I would be tempted to decorate those concrete boxes myself!
Even the employee bathroom looks like a Hobbit hut.
Even the employee bathroom looks like a Hobbit hut.
Probably the nicest, cleanest factory bathroom in the world.
Probably the nicest, cleanest factory bathroom in the world.
Meet Hundertwasser himself.
Meet Hundertwasser himself.
Hundertwasser was basically a hippie, but with the Austrian ability to Think Big and Get Things Done.  In a good way, this time.
Hundertwasser was basically a hippie, but with the Austrian ability to Think Big and Get Things Done. In a good way, this time.
Hundertwasser donated his design skills to many environmental causes, producing many beautiful posters and ads over the course of his career.
Hundertwasser donated his design skills to many environmental causes, producing many beautiful posters and ads over the course of his career.
An overview of the process, from raw garbage to that little box of slag on the right.
An overview of the process, from raw garbage to that little box of slag on the right.
Spankin' clean control room.
Spankin’ clean control room.
A place for everything, even the hardhats in the break room.
A place for everything, even the hardhats in the break room.
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