You’ve enjoyed the bonfire, marvelled at the fireworks and indulged in delicious food to warm the cockles in the chilly evening; Bonfire night is complete for another year. The fog may be clearing after the fireworks but what about the FOG below your feet?
The Season of the Fatberg
Although fatbergs can form at any point throughout the year, late autumn and winter offer prime conditions to cultivate the real monsters. Cold weather will often lead the population towards hearty foods, dishes typically associated with more FOG producing potential. Warming classics such as stews, roasts and soups are a regular occurrence with Bonfire night alone seeing a marked increase in greasy favourites such as burgers and sausages a decent helping of fried onions. Unless impeccable levels of grease management are continuously practiced, there’s a good chance of higher quantities of FOG being introduced to the sewer system. More FOG = more fatberg building materials.
This time of year also sees dramatically colder weather. A drop in temperature leads to sewer pipes being generally colder, meaning that FOG solidifies more quickly. Rapidly solidifying FOG means fatbergs are formed in less time. Combine this with the increase in fats, oils and grease and it’s a recipe for disaster.
An Ongoing Battle
Fatbergs aren’t a new phenomenon and appear to have been a concern as far back as the Victorian era when the idea of a grease trap first came into existence. There are multiple cases around the country at any one time; some not yet developed enough to cause issues, others so large they pose obstruction risks. Not only blocking sewer systems and causing untold damage to underground structures, fatbergs also potentially threaten hygiene and health with harmful bacteria reproducing freely. Just because we only occasionally hear about the gargantuan masses, it doesn’t mean that they’re not always there – the problem goes much deeper.
Think along the lines of Ghostbusters 2 with something evil and fetid spawning beneath our feet. Instead of a freely flowing river of slime, picture a congealed bulk waiting to attack and burst forth onto the streets. Grease traps both passive and automatic are the super heroes ready to save the day by preventing fatberg ingredients from amassing in the sewers.
The obvious breeding grounds for supersize fatbergs are highly populated areas where a variety of premises converge; places where commercial and domestic buildings go hand in hand. High quantities of FOG from foodservice businesses combined with sanitary products and wet wipes etc. from domestic residences, hotels and hospitals merge in the outdated sewer system to create the prime spot for fatberg formation. The pipework beneath major cities is under continuous scrutiny, with teams on the lookout for any potential problems before they arise.
It falls to water companies to take up arms and tackle these rancid beasts. The only way to clear congealed aggregations of waste is by hand with the help of pressure washers, shovels, a great deal of protective clothing and a whole heap of elbow grease (the non-fatberg forming kind). The unwavering dedication of water companies, in particular the ‘flushers’ (an affectionate name for the people on the front line) is what keeps our sewer systems in good working order. The unrecognised protectors of our sewer systems, it is they who have the responsibility of hunkering down to tackle the monstrosities lurking in the depths. The sheer scale of the problem and work involved comes with a price tag though.
The Cost of Fatbergs
The cost of clearing fatbergs and repairing any damage within a specified zone falls to the national water company responsible for that area.
The accumulative figure for the UK as a whole to stay on top of fatberg formations is currently estimated at an eye-watering £80 million. This figure isn’t divided equally however; the budget for each authority in no way directly proportionate to the square miles it covers. Obviously, regions with more heavily populated areas must budget for a greater expenditure as they naturally tackle a higher total amount of effluent.
Thames Water alone estimates it spends approximately £1 million every month within its jurisdiction. This staggering amount only covers the cost of clearing blockages alone without taking in to account any damage caused by fatbergs, the potential disruption to traffic and the pungent smells likely to invade the area. Although Thames Water isn’t the biggest authority based on square miles, it primarily consists of large, built-up, densely populated areas where the prime ingredients for fatbergs are in abundance.
Scottish Water reportedly spend around £6.5 million per year on clearing blockages and while it services the largest land coverage, it includes vast remote areas where FOG won’t necessarily be an issue.
It’s these exorbitant sums that have led to authorities clamping down on the main offenders - foodservice businesses. Any new business set-up is required to install appropriate grease trap protection. Whilst not compulsory for existing businesses, it is strongly urged to address current grease management procedures and take action to limit the amount of effluent ending up down the drain.
Teams of investigators (fatberg busters, if you will) are on the case, monitoring the situation and tracing blockages back to the source. If a blockage occurs and is successfully traced back, massive fines can be issued to cover the expense of clearing and removal. Kitting out commercial kitchens and catering operations with suitable grease traps could avoid experiencing large potential payouts in the future.
Unfortunately, while people remain oblivious to the results of their actions, fatbergs will always be an issue. Education is the key. Teaching businesses and homes about the dangers of FOG and informing of simple grease management procedures and grease trap equipment to prevent fatberg creation, this is a battle we can and will win. The first step has already been taken, with the media highlighting fatberg reports and getting people talking. Detailing the clearing costs involved and the generally disgusting nature of the results, it’s time to use the public’s strange fascination with the gruesome to capture their attention; using the lure of the repugnant to highlight this very important issue.