A Visit to a Waste-to-Energy Facility: Notes from central Austria’s industrial fields
The following post is based on a recent site visit to a waste incinerator in Lower Austria. In the context of my dissertation research on the construction of waste as a renewable energy source in Europe, visits to incinerators help me understand the practices – labor, knowledge, and decisions – through which these facilities are maintained, as well as the subjectivities employees develop in relation to them. I have changed names to protect the identities of research participants, who have generously agreed to share their insights with me. The unrecorded conversation described below originally took place in German; the translation into English is my own.
When I meet Georg, he’s still wearing his work pants, neon yellow reflective jacket, and a white safety helmet. He brusquely shakes my hand, and excuses himself to get changed and wash his hands. He smells faintly of cigarettes, and his blue eyes, when he smiles, reveal deeply-creased crows feet – a product, perhaps, of many years as a smoker, but also a readily-delivered and welcoming grin, I will learn.
Frankly, all I really know about Georg going into the interview is that he’s a technician who was at one point in charge of the plant’s flue gas cleaning system, and who has worked at the waste incinerator (the company calls its facility a Thermische Abfallverwertungsanlage or ‘thermal waste utilization plant’) since its beginning. 2003 it turns out. For my dissertation I’m researching the construction and contestation of waste as a renewable energy source in the European Union. My goal for today’s site visit and interviews is to develop a deeper sense of the “maintenance” required to keep a waste incinerator, also sometimes called a waste-to-energy facility, mechanically and socially in operation (Graham and Thrift 2007; Broto and Bulkeley 2013).
I’m already aware that the flue gas is where dioxins and furans, the substances considered the most toxic and dangerous of waste incinerators’ byproducts (c.f. Colborn et al. 1997; Connett 2013; Pellow 2004; Walsh et al. 1997), are located. Given this equipment’s significance, I consider the interview with Georg an excellent opportunity to develop a better understanding of the technology itself, and also a sense of the people responsible for monitoring and maintaining it.
The interview takes place in the meeting room I was in last night for the Bürgerbeirat (‘community advisory committee’) meeting. Several of the potted flowers meant as take-home gifts for the community members remain clustered on the table. I have poured Georg and myself glasses of water from the kitchen down the hall; I’m apparently starting to feel more at ease here, now on my 5th visit. I briefly explain the interview goals, clarifying that my objective is to get a better technical overview of the facility. Although I’ve already taken a general tour, I explain, I want to learn more.
“But have you had a behind-the-scenes tour?” he asks. I haven’t, I admit, and tell him it’s something I’d very much like to do. He pauses for a moment, then volunteers, “we have plenty of helmets, boots, and jackets, maybe we should take some time to do that.” I nod my head vigorously, and after a bit of deliberation, we decide to do this now, even though we’ve already turned the recorder on to start the formal interview. The fact that he doesn’t appear to check with anyone, that he can decide spontaneously to give me a backstage tour of the facility, indicates to me that he is relatively high up in the chain of operations here, an assumption that our review of the company organization chart later confirms.
Georg brings out the requisite safety gear. I put it on and immediately develop a sense of imposter syndrome and some self-consciousness. The safety goggles are too big and I have to use my index finger to keep them on my face. Every time I look up at some piece of equipment, I awkwardly try to maintain a grip on my notebook and make sure my helmet stays on at the same time.
Our first stop is the incinerator’s rail yard, where I see three sets of tracks end. The train cars look much as I expected, and have already observed from a distance – mundane rust, gray, and steel-blue boxes. Georg proudly points out that the incinerator operator has even designed some of the shipping containers itself so they can be delivered and unloaded more easily by rail. Few of the incinerators in Europe receive waste shipments via train, I learn. Usually, it comes in trucks. At this facility, in contrast, the operators boast that 90% arrives by train.
One rail car facing us is open, revealing tightly stacked 1-meter by 1-meter bundles wrapped in white plastic. Here and there the pungent stuffing pokes through the wrapping.
“Where’s that from?” I ask.
“Hmm, well that could be from Italy or Slovenia, I’m not sure.”
While the shipments of waste from southern Italy have repeatedly made the Austrian news since 2013 this is the first I’ve heard that waste also comes from Slovenia; it’s never come up in my previous interviews either. I ask what percent of the waste they process comes from households and what percent from industry. He answers a bit vaguely, “well, household waste can technically be counted alongside other ‘similar materials’,” he all but rolls his eyes, “but about 40%. About 40% comes from household waste.”
The prepared bales require a bit more manual manipulation before the waste they contain can be transferred into the bunker. Namely, because the blocks are big enough to clog the chutes that lead to the firing grates, and because they can’t burn efficiently when they’re that densely packed, they have to be picked apart, tousled, before they’re deposited alongside the rest of the fodder.
We dodge the flurry of industrial vehicles that also buzz around the compact space. Darting among the semi trucks are bobcats and other smaller machines specially designed to move containers from the rails to the waste bunker. Around us, trucks back in; some drivers gab on their cell phones as they tilt and drop their rotting cargo into the gaping waste bunker gates. “Careful,” Georg cautions me as we make our ways towards the doors that lead inside the plant, “we had an accident earlier this week.” We take a last look around the yard and enter bowels of the facility.
Some areas are louder, some quieter – we compare the staccato sound of the klopfer to that of the druckluft blaeser – “whoooosh”. Some areas smell much more pungently than others. Secretly, Georg confides, he wants to be a carpenter, “because I love the smell of wood. Garbage, well…” he trails off. The odors surrounding us speak for themselves.
As we walk through the plant, taking steel staircases up and down, winding our way through the facility’s three lines, I note how well Georg knows each corner, bolt, cleaning tank, calcium silo. It’s clear this is his baby, and it’s the plant’s inner organs that make him tick. We pause in front of one of the fiberglass emissions cleaning filters, and I ask about their origin.
He thinks a moment… “Germany? No! Italy and Taiwan, I think. Can you believe that – they’re shipped all the way from Taiwan and that costs almost nothing. It’s a shame.” I probe a little deeper, trying to ascertain why this frustrates him. “Well, we could do this in Austria, too, but… I guess it’s too expensive.” Somehow I am humbled, impressed, by how acutely aware Georg is of the interconnected global economic systems that affect the facility in which he obviously takes so much pride.
There is construction underway on line 1. Temporary workbenches are set up between the twisting pipes, cables, and other equipment. The language the workers speak with each other is not German. I ask Georg about these crews, and he explains that they generally hire contract workers to perform this function, since they only do it once a year per line. Metal scaffolding extends 30 meters inside the gas-cleaning chambers. Inside, dust-masked workers equipped with rags and water scrub the chamber’s interior.
Because the line is shut down we are able to peer into different components. Curiously, I note that many are equipped with what look like plexiglas portholes. Georg tells me that when they built the facility they were so curious to see the processes at work that they built windows into the systems. He chuckles, “Of course they get dirty and you usually can’t see much.” He takes me to another part of the plant – where the emissions monitoring system displays are. Each line has its own monitor displaying sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, total organic carbon, and nitrogen dioxide values. I notice that some measurements register as negative, which is, of course, not physically possible.
Dioxin values merit their own screen. Pausing in front of this monitor, Georg repeatedly stresses how difficult it is to accurately measure such a small value – 0.1 nanograms per meter3 – the legal limit. I ask about what I’ve learned from my other interviews about the history of this measurement – that it was the lowest value that’s physically possible to measure, and which waste incinerator opponents chose because they erroneously assumed it would be too expensive for facilities to implement this measurement system.
Georg tilts his head back and forth. “Well, you can measure smaller values, but it is really, really difficult. You need incredibly sensitive tools.” I ask to see this equipment, and we walk to a nearby 2-foot by 2-foot plexiglass box that houses a series of interconnected glass pipettes, valves and filters. Each month this equipment is removed, the dioxin levels measured, and then replaced by a new, sanitized set. The system strikes me as fragile, and somehow surprisingly quaint – the delicate glass equipment seems out of place among the massive metal plant components we’ve been walking through.
On perhaps the fourth floor we catch a view of the landscape surrounding the plant. We can see the rail tracks that run coal from the Danube to the power plant behind us. I remark on the view – how incredible I find it that from this point you see such a vast network of energy production, as well as the legacy of military infrastructure that, by many accounts, made the incinerator here possible. Waste delivery by rail, I’ve gleaned from many conversations, was something that the region was adamant about as it wouldn’t accept a facility that would also bring thousands of diesel-fueled trucks through the neighborhood.
Georg seems amused by my enchantment. To him, the truly beautiful view is from the roof, from which, if you gaze south, you can see the Rax and the Schneeberg – more or less the eastern frontier of the Alps, the area in Lower Austria where he’s from. I share with him that I’ve been to his hometown, have hiked from one of the mountains to the other. Initially incredulous, he seems to regard me with a newly found respect.
Shortly thereafter, I confuse my verb conjugations, inadvertently using the informal rather than the formal. I catch myself, and apologize, but he waves it off, extending his hand an invitation to transition to first-names.
“Georg.” Funny to me this pretense, as if I didn’t already know.
“Ingrid,” I reciprocally offer. I think about my local friends’ mentioning to me several years ago that in Austria, “above 1,000 meters everyone is ‘Du’.”
Now, having established a less formal rapport, and safely buffered from the constant whirring of machinery inside the plant that forced us to raise our voices when we spoke inside (we have migrated to a hallway with a west-facing window) I transition to a few prepared interview questions that aim to get some insight into how Georg feels about his work. I ask, “Reflecting on your accomplishments here, what would you say you’re most proud of?”
He looks a bit wistfully, self-consciously, out the window, and offers, “Well, I guess that all this actually works. I mean there was so much that we didn’t know, that we still don’t know. There were so many mistakes that the industry made at the beginning. Look at Vienna, where there were some really, really bad mistakes in the 1980s. There was so much planning and preparation and calculation that went into this – and it really just works. My wish is simply for it to just be able to keep working as it has been.”
I don’t interpret this vocalization as signifying that there is some immanent threat to the facility’s future operation. Rather, I assume that he is merely commenting on the satisfaction he finds with his work, and that he wants to keep it that way. This reflection seems particularly poignant, though, as Georg shares it with me while we’re looking onto the nearby coal-fired power plant, half of which will likely be shut down at the end of this month, Austrian papers have recently reported, probably leaving dozens of workers unemployed.
Before we ascend the last set of stairs, Georg turns to me and asks, “you’re not afraid of heights, are you?”. He opens a door, and I am hit with direct light from a surprisingly warm mid-March sun. The view is incredible, though marred perhaps by the noticeable haze. I think about how people always refer to this as an industrial area, despite the agricultural fields that stretch from horizon to horizon. From here, perched high above the rolling rail cars and darting delivery trucks, we can see the station through which the trains come, to the south. Just in front of that is a golf course, a landscape feature that has always struck me as sitting rather awkwardly in this very working class community.
Steam pipes run from the facility to the coal-fired plant where the turbines that convert it to electricity are housed. High-tension wires spire up from a small lot abutting the coal plant, running west to a transfer station. Georg points to a set of large gleaming pipes nearby – “and that’s the hot water that’s used for the district heating system in St. Pölten.” Just to the north, approximately two miles or so away, the carcass of the Zwentendorf atomic energy plant, its red and white striped chimney tower a mirror image of those adorning both the waste incinerator and the coal power plant, stands guard on the banks of the Danube, from which it would have drawn its cooling water had it ever entered into operation. “I don’t know what they were thinking they’d do with this space,” he says, referring to the large viewing platform we’re standing on. “They even designed the floor grates to accommodate stiletto heels.”
When we return from the tour, Georg brings out a copy of the company’s organization chart. About 100 faces stare up at me, each with last name, first name and specialty listed underneath. I am struck by the fact that they are all, with the exception of the chief executives’ secretaries, men, and for that matter, look white.
“So many men!” I remark.
“Ha, yes. Lots of men. Although we do have a woman in one of the shifts now” (there are approximately six shifts). “I guess it’s just that women don’t really find waste-to-energy to be such a sexy topic?” he posits.
Georg started working at the facility in 2003, as a member of one of these rotating shifts. The job started early – 7am, much to his chagrin. Every day began with a staff meeting where they reviewed the previous day’s facility data, the work for the day ahead, and divvied up responsibilities. The monotony of this routine wore on him, and he determined to move to the process engineering department, assuming his present role in 2008, during the construction of the 3rd line. Now his department is an intimate team of four, which he says runs incredibly smoothly. One of his staff “breathes thermodynamics” he extols. Another is an Excel whizz. To his relief, he can now come in at 8:30 or 9:00, and each day presents him with a new, often unpredictable, set of challenges to which they can creatively respond.
I ask how he spends a typical day. Lately, he explains, they’ve been concerned about mercury (“quicksilver”) levels, the source of which they’ve had a hard time identifying. I ask about his work before I arrived this morning. “Well, I tried to prepare for this interview, but couldn’t really think of what I should do for that. But then I talked to Gerda (another employee I’d interviewed a few weeks before), and she told me that you’ll just ask me some questions and it’s not a big deal,” he laughs.
His team takes a more-or-less longitudinal, holistic view of the facility, but is also trained to respond to emergencies, fires in the bunkers for example. In fact, everyone who works in the facility is a trained fire fighter, kept fresh by different monthly emergency exercises. And if there’s ever a shortfall, or a need for more hands, the local community fire departments can be called upon. His team also monitors the deliveries, which come from 30 or 40 different “customers” (kunden). They decide, for example, when one of the trucks or containers needs to be searched.
I ask what informs these decisions. “Well, it’s a mix. Each client gets randomly monitored once a month, but always on a different schedule. But sometimes, if there’s a client with a history of fishy deliveries, then we examine their deliveries more closely and more regularly. They dump out their loads, and we use one of the smaller lift machines” (which I’ve observed are decked out with an intimidatingly sharp set of blades) “to poke around in there. You have no idea what some people throw away. Entire wind turbine blades, even!”
Despite these encounters with underhanded waste delivery attempts, Georg is not quick to assign blame. “Maybe they really don’t know what’s in there,” he offers. But, when I inquire whether he thinks people generally have good intentions, he shakes his head, laughing, “I guess I thought that, too, when I was younger.”
Ingrid Behrsin is a PhD candidate in the Geography Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. Her dissertation investigates the material and discursive construction of waste as a renewable energy source in the European Union, and analyzes the socio-ecological implications of this framing in the context of waste-to-energy production. She operationalizes this work through two multi-sited case studies of waste incinerators in Austria.
Broto, Vanesa Castán, and Harriet Bulkeley. 2013. “Maintaining Climate Change Experiments: Urban Political Ecology and the Everyday Reconfiguration of Urban Infrastructure: Climate Change Experiments in Bangalore and Monterrey.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37 (6): 1934–48.
Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. 1997. Our Stolen Future: Are We Threatening Our Fertility, Intelligence, and Survival?: A Scientific Detective Story. New York: Penguin Group.
Connett, Paul. 2013. The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Pub.
Graham, Stephen, and Nigel Thrift. 2007. “Out of Order: Understanding Repair and Maintenance.” Theory, Culture & Society 24 (3): 1–25.
Pellow, David N. 2004. Garbage Wars: The Struggle for Environmental Justice in Chicago. Cambridge, Mass.; London: MIT.
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