Ever thought about where that residual juice, fat, oil and grease from cooking equipment, trays and plates goes once it’s disappeared down your sink? Despite what many people think, it doesn’t just wash cleanly down the pipes to a treatment centre.
Foundations of a Fatberg
Once cooled your fats, oils, grease (also referred to as FOG) and juices solidify and congeal in pipe work. This, on its own, wouldn’t exactly be ideal but when combined with flushed items (which shouldn’t actually be flushed) such as wet wipes, sanitary products, contraceptives and cotton buds etc. a complex fusion is created that can develop into gargantuan proportions. What might begin as a minor nuisance can mature into a colossal blockage, costing time and money to remedy.
A fatberg is formed.
Are There Any Other Contributing Factors?
Although the emphasis is placed on FOG mixed with solid matter, there are other elements that may contribute to the problem. Household items such as soap and essential oils etc. can all add to the problem – even claimed that the type of loo paper used can play a part.
The general advice is to only flush the Three ‘P’s’ – pee, poo and paper, but even that may be in doubt if some reports are to be believed. Some are of the opinion that areas that pay a bit more for plush toilet paper are at greater risk of blockages; the thicker, quilted paper being harder to break down (although this is not evidenced).
What Are the Effects of Fatbergs?
When the sewer system is blocked, any overflow that can’t continue through the pipes creates pressure, potentially leading to blocked toilets and drains and the possible rupturing of ageing pipe systems. Any excess effluent that hasn’t got anywhere to go is flushing out into public waterways, the waste littering coastlines. This isn’t just an environmental hazard but poses a threat to wildlife.
Where Do They Form?
Anywhere. Although mainly a product of highly populated areas, fatbergs have cropped up in less dense regions. Notably the most recent discovery was in Sidmouth; a relatively quiet seaside town.
The problem isn’t just with what’s being flushed down toilets and sinks but also the substandard UK sewer system. First installed in the Victorian era when the population was considerably less and the day to day lives of society didn’t produce nearly as much waste, they just weren’t designed to cope with the demands of the modern world. The original structures in London were equipped to deal with the then populous of circa 4 million however have never been updated or modernised, so it’s not surprising that it can’t cope with the ever-multiplying population of today that’s approaching 9 million.
Highlighting Bad Habits
Although commercial foodservice businesses are highlighted by water companies as major contributors, being investigated and fined where an offence has occurred, blame shouldn’t only be restricted to your local restaurant or take-away.
Bad habits are just as prevalent in the domestic arena. It has been reported that 4 in 10 residential premises within the Thames Water jurisdiction still pour oils, fats and grease down the sink, even though fatbergs and the known sources are more publicised than ever.
People may think their little contribution won’t make a difference to the situation, but when everyone thinks the same, that’s when it turns into a massive issue.
People imagine fatberg formations to be soft, squishy masses but surprisingly they are more like concrete. When a blockage is located, it requires high power water jets, pickaxes, shovels, drills and a whole lot of elbow grease to clear the way through the solid structure.
A plan of action is formulated, teams are dispatched and the blockage is removed, although the whole process can take many weeks and even months.
According to Water UK, there are approximately 300,000 blockages in UK sewers every year. That is estimated to cost water companies (and indirectly, the tax payer) up to £100 million to remedy.
Rather than just react to the problem, a long term solution needs to be based around prevention rather than cure.
Educating domestic and commercial premises is essential.
In the domestic sphere, flushing of the unflushables has been well publicised, with environmental consequences being made clear. Every perpetrating household can’t be brought to justice and so part of the solution has to rely heavily on common sense and the acceptance of responsibility by the public.
In an attempt to help combat the fatberg phenomenon and the contribution of solids to the problem, a new standard has been announced regarding ‘flushable’ wet wipes. Many so called ‘flushable’ items have been proven to be anything but, however this new testing aims to bring clarification to what can and can’t go down the toilet. The hotly anticipated ‘fine to flush’ logo will be awarded only to products that pass more rigorous testing. This comes off the back of Water UK’s information that non-flushable items are thought to contribute to almost 93% of sewer obstructions.
Cooking juices and FOG ending up down the sink can be moderated and dramatically lessened with good grease management protocol. All plates and cooking utensils should be scrapped of waste food and wiped free of any residual juices before being rinsed. Any excess that does find its way into the drain can be caught with the simple installation of an appropriate grease trap.
While presently grease traps aren’t required in domestic premises, they are strongly recommended and advised in commercial catering operations. Although other countries enforce strict rules for grease trap compliance, in the UK they are still only a recommendation … at the moment. It is soon believed that they will become a mandatory fitting in new and existing commercial properties.
Fatbergs are increasingly posing a real threat to communities, the environment and wildlife. By educating the public and businesses and giving a greater understanding of what exactly fatbergs are and how they can be prevented, this is one problem that we can all combat together.