Day 6: Essen (part II)

RWE MHKW (Waste Fire Incineration Plant) Essen-Karnap

Waking up at the Holiday Inn in Essen was a real treat after staying at the youth hostel in Köln. Even though the hostel was comfortable enough, this hotel was luxurious! After breakfast, we set off to one of the biggest incineration plants in Germany which is Müllheizkraftwerk (MHKW) Essen-Karnap. Professor Jeromin had arranged for a double-decker bus so that we could enjoy a nice view throughout the bus trip (that was helpful for the guided bus tour of Essen later on that day).

Arriving at the plant, we were welcomed by a very friendly guide (this one spoke perfect English!) who escorted us to a conference room where he made a short presentation over the different processes of the plant while we had some breakfast snacks. We learned that the plant generates 130 MJ/s of energy used for district heating and 48 MW of energy for household use in the Ruhr area. After incineration, the volume of waste is reduced by 10%.


Short diagram about how a waste incineration plant works

After the seminar, we changed into safety wear (again safety first!) and went for a guided tour of the plant. We could witness the discharge of wastes in the tipping hall: the smell was strong but bearable! We were directed to a small room with a glass wall, from where a crank operator controls the big grippers to mix the wastes and feed the 4 boilers: everyone was stunned by the huge amount of waste in the waste bunker – 10,000 TN. During the visit, while chatting with our guide he told us some funny anecdotes: a motorcycle that had the whole process stop as it blocked the way (someone was crazy enough to throw away a motorcycle in the regular trash bins) or when they had to stop the operation of the plant and call the police because a human body had been disposed in the waste. The funniest one he told us was when the police had to supervise the incineration of black market goods (branded products such as Chanel, Boss etc.) and all the employees just had to watch the scene with a heavy heart…

Unfortunately we could not visit the burning chamber as the sparks generated in the boilers (they operate at a temperature higher than 1000°C) frequently caused some explosions which could be dangerous for bystanders. On the other hand, we could visit the general control room where a team of specialised workers supervised the different processes by viewing live videos of the tipping hall, the waste bunker and the boilers: there we could at least see the video transmissions of the burning processes. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the plant but indeed we felt privileged to be given the opportunity to visit such an important place for a city that usually remains unknown for the most of the population.


A happy crew!

Zollverein: former coal mine

In the afternoon, we visited Zollverein, a former coal mine complex and one of the biggest in Germany. It was owned by the Haniel family, owners of the Franz Haniel & Cie Holding and one of the wealthiest families in Germany, even nowadays. Our tour started with an energetic and funny guide, who started by telling us the history behind the name of the mine. It means “Customs Union”, and indeed, it was a bizarre name for a mine. In fact, it dates back to the time when France and England had already a central state but Germany didn’t. So when transporting coal from one state to the other, producers had to pay customs fees. Bothered by this issue, Germany industrials decided to implement free trade inside the country, thus the creation of Customs Union.

This mine was founded in 1928, and it was closed down in 1986. Now, it’s a museum about the mining industry and its important role in modern Germany. It is also a master piece of industrial architecture, with its dark red towers and its ancient interior setting design.

Coal mining was the key activity in German economy; it led the German Industrial Revolution for 800 years. It was also a technology-driver, because most of the research and development done at that time was aimed at improving the performance and the production rate of mines. For example, they invented lifts in order to load faster the coal extracted down in the mines.


Now that’s a fancy coal mine!


Our guide showed us the different rooms in this huge mine while describing the difficult working conditions at that time. The unloading of coal generated a noise of 106 dB (a starting airplane generates around 120 dB). There was a room where loudspeakers reproduced this noise so that we would try to put ourselves in the workers shoes for two minutes – that was super loud! However, these conditions had to be endured 24hrs by the workers!

Over a century, although the working conditions didn’t improve at all, the people liked the stability that the work offered. In addition to this, there was plenty of job opportunities and this is how many Polish, Italians and Turkish immigrants started to come to Germany. Our guide explained to us an interesting point of view from the workers of that era: nobody actually felt miserable, because everybody had the same tough life. Plus, accommodation was included in the contract and the employer even provided free coal and a garden where the miners could grow vegetables and keep some goats.

We ended our visit by climbing up to the top of the mining facilities, where we could see how big Zollverein was. We could also see the huge hills around Essen commonly known as tips which was made of the remaining stone that’s left after washing the coal. Some of them were really big and it is hard to imagine Essen’s landscape before that was dumped.


The whole Zollverein mining complex has dark red buildings, which are part of its architectural value

The Krupp family and Essen

Before going back to the hotel, we had a bus tour of Essen with a guide who commented on the city sights. Essen is a rather modern city, most of it was destroyed after the Second World War, so many buildings had to be rebuilt.  It was founded as a city in 1850 but it was already a big economical centre thanks to the mining industry. When the last coal mine was closed down, the city started to shrink, but now thanks to other fields of economy the city is growing again. As a proof, the unemployment rate is very low: 2% in the south of the city and 2.12% in the north. We drove past some of the biggest German companies headquarters: e.on, Karstadt, Aldi Group, ThysenKrupp… Needless to say, there will always be jobs for young professionals here.

The biggest sponsor of the city was the Krupp family, one of the richest in Europe thanks to the mining and steel industry. In fact, they were the first weaponry manufacturer during both wars.

We headed to Margaritenhöhe Garden, an enormous park named after the wife of Friedrich Alfred Krupp, the second Krupp to direct the family company. With the help of our big bus, we drove 50 metre up to one of Essen’s tips. Nowadays, the tips are open for the public and local artists to display massive artworks on them. The one we were at, the Schurenbachhalde, featured a massive 15-metre-high slab, called Bramme (slab), made by American artist Richard Serra. From there, we contemplated the industrial city’s skyline to the sunset. The slab pretty much represented Essen’s essence (no pun intended) as an industrial capital. It is made of steel, a metal that was key for Essen’s economic growth, covered with rust (an effect that the artist was looking for on purpose), and yet it’s there, standing up on top of the city.


That’s Greg next to the slab, so that you can tell how tall it was (15 metres tall!)

Night was falling, so we returned to the hotel. At Ana’s request (and because she was craving for what she calls “real food”), Professor Jeromin suggested to us a traditional Bavarian restaurant not far from there, der Löwe. We decided to go there, and Professor Jeromin decided to join us too! At the restaurant, he introduced us to the famous Maß (measure), which is a one-litre mug for beer, typically seen in Germany and specially in Oktoberfest (the American boys fell in love with it), and he also recommended us several traditional Bavarian specialties, such as the Schnitzel. We had an awesome dinner, with the Professor sharing funny anecdotes with us and exchanging tongue-twisters in Chinese, Indonesian, English, French… you name it. Do you know how much wood would a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood? This dinner was one of the most memorable moments with him in this trip!


Time for some typical Bavarian food in Essen!

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