17
Apr
09

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April 15, 2009 – Brielselaan, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Brielselaan Incinerator, Rotterdam

Rotterdam, reportedly, is the only major city with an incinerator dead smack in the urban center. Of course, this being Rotterdam, there are other industries equally dead smack, since the city is built around a vast port that attracts all sorts of industrial activity. Still, there’s housing a long stone’s throw away from the ovens.

If you look at the plant on a nice day and from the right angle, across a swath of municipal daffodils and a little stand of poplars flaunting their brand-spanking-new leaves, it looks like a Potemkin village, a put-on job, an elaborate hoax. For all I know, it wasn’t actually operational when I was there. All the same, I am assured that some 385,000 tons of garbage are disappeared here annually. And the trash that I produced from 1968 to 1972 was done in here also, subsequently used for city heating as well as being converted to electricity.

Today the oven probably would not be sited here, but it’s got squatting rights. The first oven was built on this wharf along the Maas in 1910. A new oven was built in 1963. In 1990, the later ovens were updated and adjusted so they could handle the exhaust gases from the Maas Tunnel nearby. How cool. To be absolved not only of our plastic but of our driving!

This week, there was not a whiff of garbage to be noticed anywhere. No smoke and vapors belching out of the chimneys. No convoys of trucks driving in and out. A burnished metal facade hides the flue gas cleaning plant, which in turn hides the somewhat more utilitarian ovens. A screen at street level, endlessly and incongruously repeating photographic deep scarlet roses, is wrapped around the front like the bow on a birthday gift.  It is for sure a far cry from the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which, if you have a nose, you cannot possibly mistake for anything else but what it is.

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Brielselaan incinirator docks on the Maas

Even from the back, where most of the garbage arrives, by barge, it doesn’t look too bad. Perhaps they have a dedicated clean-up crew whose job it is to keep the plant spic and span at all times.

All the same, in the last review to determine whether the incinerator’s operating license should be renewed, environmental activists managed to persuade the government against the proposition. Interestingly, the argument was that energy returns  from the old ovens, which date to 1963, capture too little of the potential energy released in the incineration process to be considered environmentally responsible. So the flue gas treatment unit will stay, but a new oven will replace the current one in the near future. The cognitive dissonance, for the American visitor at least, remains.

Such an apparently pleasant, useful, and seemingly unexceptionable  incinerator raises a question: does a right-thinking garbage amateur prefer the spiffy harmlessness of the Brielselaan to the moldering, hulking, stinking menace of the Northwest incinerator in Chicago, which is in violation of emission regulation on a regular basis. On the one hand, a socially beneficial technology that minimizes the self-destructive tendencies of a comfortable lifestyle. On the other hand, a public health threat, most immediately to the poor people living nearby.

The choice is inevitable. One cannot in good conscience come down against the poor people who have to breathe in the mistakes and carelessness of a poorly operated, technologically backward monster.

All the same, a good memento mori speaks a truth so wide and deep, there’s no carpe diem will come close.

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