Fatbergs and the City

Dear Human,

We know what you’re thinking. It’ll just be this one time. No one ever has to know. The doors are closed and no one is looking, but that seemingly small action can have lasting consequences, and not just for you.  It’s time to open up—we need to have the talk. You know the one:

It’s time to openly discuss FATBERGS!

(Fatberg on display in London, Via The Independent)

 

Worldwide, behind closed doors, thousands of people are flushing things that have no business entering our sewer systems. Those “flushable” wipes? Not so much. Baby wipes, feminine products, dirty diapers? Please back away! Or maybe you’re not in the bathroom at all but in the kitchen. Cooking that bacon left a lot of grease in the pan. You know it’s not supposed to go down the sink but hey, no one is looking so down it goes. Just this once, right?

Ever wonder what happens to all that stuff that got flushed or dumped “just that once”? It enters the sewer system where it meets up with all the other stuff that entered the system the same way, and there is a LOT of it. Fats congeal with semi-broken down paper products and the whole thing takes on a life of its own: the fatberg! These masses can get enormous due to a process called saponification-where the calcium in the concrete sewer pipes aids in a reaction that converts the collected lard into soap (and sewer soap is anything but clean).

Fatburgs are a huge problem facing almost every city in the world. In 2017, London removed a 130 ton fatberg that was blocking their sewers, it weighed as much as 11 double-decker busses and took a round-the-clock team over a week to remove. The problem is so prevalent in London, that they currently have a piece of a fatberg on display at the Museum of London. In fact, you can tune in to a live-stream of the berg as it breaks down (last we checked, it was sprouting a yellow mold!).  Here in America, a fatberg was responsible for a recent sewer overflow in Baltimore, and another fatberg the size of a blue whale was just removed from Detroit’s sewer system.

Fatbergs are not just gross; they are expensive to get rid of! New York City estimates that grease is responsible for over 70% of their sewer back-ups, and cost them $18 million between 2010 and 2015.  Fort Wayne, Indiana spends half a million dollars every year trying to control the fatty problem.

(Removal of the London Fatberg, Via The Guardian)

 

So what can we do about it? We need to better control the inputs to our sewer systems. Restaurants are a major source of oil and grease. They are required to have oil traps to catch these materials before they reaches the sewer system, but these can malfunction if not properly maintained. And then there’s…the rest of us, behind closed doors, thinking “just this once”.

But it wasn’t just that once, was it?

And it wasn’t that one time for your neighbor either, or that guy down the street.

We ALL need to think twice before dumping things down the sink or flushing them down the toilet.

Those millions of dollars being spent scraping fatbergs out of sewer pipes are taxpayer dollars (i.e., your dollars), ones that could have been spent on other projects around the city. The good news is that this problem is preventable. So, here’s what to do:

Oil and Grease: First, resist the urge to pour it down the sink or toilet! Then, determine if your oil/grease can be used again. If so, strain and store it for later use. If it cannot be used again, pour it into a container, wait for it to solidify, and then toss it in the regular trash.

Wipes, diapers, and other paper products: Rule of thumb: if it’s not human waste or regular toilet paper, do not flush it! Keep a small, covered trash can within an arm’s length of the toilet or the diaper changing table to help resist the urge. And remember – just because something says it’s “flushable” doesn’t mean it is. Only toilet paper in the toilet! The rest goes in the trash.

 

Sincerely,

 

All of us who have to clear your wipes out of the sewers

About the author

Suzie Housley

Suzie sees her role in the stormwater world as a “go between” the technical and the general communities. She uses her years of experience to decipher scientific studies and government policies to communicate a practical message.