Discreetly sunk: underground supply and disposal centre

In their underground supply and disposal centre, the company Alba Berlin ensures that everything one could possibly need to live, work and trade reaches the quarter – unnoticed. A masterpiece of logistics.

Potsdamer Platz quarter is nothing short of a small city inside the big city: about 10,000 people live and work here. There are private apartments, two hotels, more than 30 restaurants and over 130 specialist shops. Every day, up to 100,000 visitors take a wander through the streets, admire buildings, immerse themselves in art and culture, enjoy food and drink. The lack of trucks, vans or bin lorries disrupting the urban scene goes almost unnoticed here.

The heart of Potsdamer Platz beats underground, beneath Marlene-Dietrich Platz, more specifically

Which is the way it should be. The supply of goods and food, the removal of rubbish and waste products have literally vanished off of the face of the Earth. Discreetly sunk, charmed away as it were. The heart of the quarter beats 15 metres below ground, directly beneath Marlene-Dietrich-Platz. This is where the supplying and collecting, the sorting and weeding out, the gathering and the distributing happens. It is also the place of the logistics centre, one-of-a-kind in Europe, which keeps Potsdamer Platz freight traffic free. The supply and disposal centre VEZ of Alba Facility Solutions GmbH. There is a good reason for it being located underground: “Try to imagine supply traffic and bin lorries on the streets of the quarter”, prompts Klaus-Dieter Krüger. Potsdamer Platz would drown in traffic chaos.

At peak times it can get loud

As the facility manager, Krüger is responsible for the VEZ and is thus Lord of the Underworld, so to speak. He and his team keep the place up to scratch. Ten employees ensure a smooth running of delivery and removal in two shifts – 365 days a year. At this point in the day, the afternoon, it is quiet. At peak times, however, says Krüger, it can get loud. Every day, 160 to 180 vans and lorries roll in on the access ramp from the B96 motorway, most of them between 6 a.m. and the early afternoon. Arrival time, supplier company and delivery destination are registered at the gate. Afterwards, the vehicles can dock at ramps; there are 19 in total.

Up to 180 lorries are processed here daily

Here they are met by an employee, who ensures timely processing. A sign serves as a reminder that “the instructions of the ramp supervisor are to be obeyed at all times.” “The people follow it”, says Krüger, “there must be order. Especially during events, such as the Berlinale, it can get tight in here.” He does not man the ramp himself, but describes himself as a warrior of the desk. Krüger’s office is situated behind the ramps. He shares it with a colleague, who looks after business procedures. He is happy to forego an office flooded with sunlight above the ground; he prefers being “close to the action and a direct contact for the drivers, the tenants and the PPMG who manages the quarter.”

The concept was sophisticated and fit for the future

Once upon a time, the private company served as the main disposal contractor for debris, waste material and rubble on what was Europe’s largest building site at the time already. The notion to continue to look after the supply and disposal in the future centre of Berlin even after its completion came naturally – just as much as the idea of moving this task underground. However, projects underground of this dimension – similar to the Tiergartentunnel – were met with reservation. At the same time, Alba prevailed against many a competitor onsite with its idea and experience in the European-wide tender. The concept was sophisticated and fit for the future: if it worked above ground, it had to be feasible underground, too. Today, 15 years later, the VEZ matches the requirements anticipated back then perfectly. “And we finished on time all those years ago”, Krüger adds with a smile. A true achievement to be proud of at this stage, when it comes to Berlin’s big projects.

Klaus-Dieter Krüger was also present when digitisation was introduced to recycling, in the shape of new weighing software. It kicks in after the waste collection: an electric train transports a total of 500 containers with a volume of 1,100 litres – which is about the volume of nine bath tubs! – daily from the 17 buildings of the quarter to the heart of the VEZ, the hall comprising 4,800 square metres.

Waste check-in at the self-service device

Here, the waste is matched with the customer via a barcode. It is then weighed with a precision of up to 100 grams before being added to the compactor and later transported to re-utilisation sites in a lorry. More than 3,500 tons of waste are thus disposed of in an environment friendly manner every year. Tenants with smaller waste volumes make their way into the hall on foot. They use self-service devices to login with their customer card and are able to weigh their waste themselves. Their data is captured and saved electronically, the invoice transparent at all times. The operating expenses are shared justly: the little boutique pays less than the supermarket.

The company remains a family business

Alba Group has experience with waste recycling: the company has been a market player since 1968. Klaus-Dieter Krüger remembers it well, how he went on his first waste-collection tours with Alba founder Franz Josef Schweitzer, starting out from a backyard in Wedding. “After the tour we would collect paper together in the evening. The relationship was very casual, Alba was a small family business at the time.” The company remains a family business, it just operates worldwide by now – with its 9,000 employees, 200 subsidiaries and a yearly revenue of 3.2 billion euro.

From early on, Alba made a name for itself as an environmental service provider. Shortly after the first national waste disposal act was issued in 1972, the company responded with the introduction of the “Berlin Model”: the disposal contractor put up recycle bins in different colours, in order for glass, cardboard and paper to be collected and utilised separately. Krüger led the first waste sorting plant back then. It was his starting block in modern recycling technology, which has been making swift progress since then.

An example of this is standing in an adjacent room to the VEZ hall: the dehydrator, which dehydrates food leftovers. Here, an employee extracts foreign matters from food leftovers of the 30 restaurants; including plates, napkins, cutlery and screw-caps. Then, the metal tub plus content is lifted up hydraulically and poured into the device. Dehydration reduces mass and thus waste volume. What remains is a mash that is filtered through a grease trap, separating water from grease and treating it.

Food leftovers make up a large part of waste in the quarter. Up until a few years ago, 15,000 containers were transported to organic plants for further utilisation – producing enormous transport and logistics costs. Having sought a solution, Krüger made a find eventually with an Austrian producer, who produces small dehydration plants for shipping. Alba ordered for a device to be adapted to Potsdamer Platz dimensions and to be installed. Since then, only 5,000 containers are driven to the collection points; costs have been decreased considerably.

If the hall is the heart of the quarter, the supply ducts are its arteries. They spread out like a labyrinth starting from the subterranean centre and leading to 17 hoists with which the suppliers can reach every shop and every client – with dry feet and without disrupting the day-to-day life above ground. Large blue signs lead the suppliers’ way. Behind a bend, a large door opens; the room beyond holds countless clothes racks packed tightly: the H&M storage room.

Alba values good working conditions

The hall, supply ducts, waste collection rooms and the containers of course are cleaned regularly. “We don’t even have flies here in summer”, says Krüger. After all, tenants enter the collection rooms, too. Moreover, ten employees call the VEZ their workplace. “The oldest two have been with us since the opening in 1998, the others for six to eight years”, Krüger recounts. “Alba values good working conditions, which is especially true for down here. It takes half a year for a new employee to know their way around the almost 5,000 square metre large terrain. After all, everyone has to be familiar with everyone else’s work, so they can cover for each other when it comes to holidays or illness.”

The subterranean heart of the quarter is large indeed, full of nooks and crannies and without any sun. Klaus-Dieter Krüger does not mind. He has been working for Alba for 40 years, 15 of which at the VEZ Potsdamer Platz. Since his work at the first sorting plants of Alba he has “not been able to escape the basement”. Sometimes, he spends his break above ground in Tilla-Durieux Park. Usually, not for very long. When his mobile rings, he knows someone needs his help; at the ramp, the dehydrator, the hoist or the self-service weighing device. Because deep under the surface of the earth, in the logistic centre of Potsdamer Platz, the heart never stops beating.

Text: Bernd Ratmeyer