The world has undoubtedly progressed and developed through the ages. This is a good thing, after all we wouldn’t have the medication, technology and modern comforts that are often taken for granted in the 21st Century. However the introduction of man-made convenience items such as baby wipes, condoms and sanitary wear have led to and created a new set of problems. Coupled with the increased use and production of fats, oils and grease mainly during cooking, the once hallowed sewer system of the 19th Century just isn’t able to cope with today’s modern lifestyle.
For too long, the sewers beneath our feet have been dominated by massive accumulations of fats, oils and grease combined with solid waste that is irresponsibly disposed of down the toilet. It’s time that the sewers fought back.
London’s Old Sewers
All of London’s sewage was once washed straight into the Thames. This meant that, for a long time, the city stunk. In the 19th century, the problems became much more serious. In 1832, London experienced its first big outbreak of deadly cholera, which was followed by two more in the space of 25 years. These outbreaks were blamed on the bad smell.
In 1858 the crisis reached its peak: at a time when 400,000 tonnes of sewage was being washed into the Thames each day, a particularly hot summer meant that the river’s water level fell and exposed decades’ worth of the city’s waste to stagnate in the sun.
The House of Commons could no longer ignore the stench of what became known as The Great Stink. After attempting to move Parliament to Oxford, MPs drafted in an engineer named Joseph Bazalgette and told him to find a way to direct waste to sewage treatment plants outside of the city. Bazalgette responded by building the system of sewers that is still in use today.
Our Modern Problems
Over 150 years later, we have our own waste problems to deal with. London’s population has tripled since Bazalgette was around and most of those 9 million Londoners do not live like Victorians. The sewers were designed to overflow into the Thames once a month, but now they pollute the river each and every week.
Meanwhile, the modern way of life means that the same sewers must handle something Bazalgette could never have predicted: Fatbergs. These huge blocks of Fats, Oils and Grease (FOGs) frequently block up the sewers under London’s streets and make it even more likely that our sewage will end up flowing directly into the Thames.
Thankfully, Bazalgette Ltd. is working on it, constructing a super sewer named Tideway. When it is completed in 2023, Tideway will be a 15 mile network of large sewers running under the Thames from Acton to Abbey Mills. The £4.2 billion Tideway tunnels will catch the overflow from the old sewers, store it, and then re-direct it to Beckton Sewerage Treatment Works where it will be treated and, once clean, released into the river.
Tideway vs Fatbergs
Tideway promises to clean up the Thames, and will mean that the Victorian sewers will be better able to cope with the strains of London’s growing population and the modern way of life. But Tideway doesn’t completely tackle the problem.
Thames Water now spends about £1 million per month clearing fatbergs from London’s Victorian sewers and fatbergs will continue to form under London’s streets for the foreseeable future. Eventually, we may even see huge clogs in Tideway’s much bigger tunnels under the Thames, which would be even more expensive to clear.
Water companies are stepping up the war, not only against fatbergs but against the businesses that directly contribute to their formation. Investigation into the origins of a fatberg have brought about a number of fines imposed on offending businesses to help cover the cost of clearing the blockage. Currently fines often stretch into thousands of pounds and that’s with a smaller, dated sewer system. As Tideway is developed, this massive super sewer will alleviate the issue however if people continue to abuse the sewer system, clogs will form again – but double or triple the size. Just think what the cost of fines would be then.
What Can You Do About It?
The direct solutions are still the best. Being aware of the impact of what you pour down the sink, and installing and using the correct sized grease traps in your drains stops the problem at its source, by preventing fatberg producing FOGs from getting into the sewers in the first place.
While foodservice businesses and takeaways are deemed to be the main culprits, it isn’t only these premises that need to brush up on their grease management and clamp down on irresponsible behaviour. Domestic households are also contributors. The amount of FOG produced in a family home might not be of fatberg forming quantities but every little bit does damage. On top of this, domestic premises are the main culprits when it comes to flushing solid materials down the toilet – anything other than the 3 P’s (pee, poo and paper) is not acceptable.
The new super sewer is yet another progression in societies advancement, a sign that systems below ground are evolving and developing just as society is above it. Responding to the growing needs and demands of a rapidly expanding population however, is remedy to just part of the problem. It’s vital that we use the opportunity that Tideway promises as the catalyst to address our own individual grease management practises and disposal tactics, both on the commercial and domestic front.