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  • Title: New Strategies for Tackling Fatbergs in 2020 and Beyond

     

    The fatberg problem is huge: out of the 200,000 sewer blockages in the UK each year, 75% are caused by fats, oils and grease (FOGs).

    We all know how it goes. FOGs slip and slide down our drains and into our sewers, where they cool and coagulate, clumping together over time into monsters which block the flow of wastewater through the sewer and lead to all sorts of problems: from a boost in rat populations to sewer overflows, which see raw sewage stream straight into our waterways.

    With the UK at the forefront of the issue, with more fatbergs appearing in our sewers than in any other country around the world, it can be difficult to see a future in which the FOG problem is a thing of the past.

    So, let’s think about what the future might hold for the fight against FOG – and what that future needs to look like if we are going to crack the problem once and for all.

    Raising the Alarm

    At the moment, awareness campaigns target food businesses. It’s the food businesses who are told that they have a responsibility to manage their FOG output, and it is food businesses who are threatened with fines from water companies if they don’t co-operate.

    While expanding initiatives such as the Grease Contractors Association to get more businesses and companies co-operating to solve the problem would be a great way to keep up the good work, there’s a key area which we are struggling with, in the awareness-raising department.

     

    Wooden chopping board with knife, saucepan, ingredients and cooking oil

    Household waste makes up a significant proportion of the FOGs which make it into our sewers. Yet disposing of household fats, oils and grease can still be confusing and inconvenient. Few have time to find out the details of what they shouldn’t be putting down their sinks (does old milk count as a fat?) and few have time to stock-pile old oil before taking the bottles on a trip to their local dump.

    Without tackling household FOGs, fatbergs won’t be going anywhere any time soon. But, to do it, we need a well-organised public response to the problem which takes into account the difficulties people can have disposing of their FOGs.

    Not everyone is passionate about grease – and it will surely be a struggle to get millions of individuals across the country to reach and maintain high levels of grease management in their homes and in their businesses.

    It will be a similar struggle to the initiative to get more people recycling – but, if the proportion of our waste being recycled is going up, slowly but steadily, we can manage to get more FOGs disposed of properly, too.

    With a team effort, the future could be fatberg free.

    While we can all chip in, there are some who could:

    Take the Lead

    This could mean the government introducing legislation which ensures food producers cut down on the amount of fats, oil and grease they put into the foods we eat – cutting down on the FOGs entering circulation in the first place.

    Or it could mean the government introducing more incentives for water and energy companies to team up in the initiatives we are already seeing – converting fatbergs into biofuels in order to offset their effects.

    But leadership doesn’t necessarily need to come from government. The grease management industry needs to continue to lead the way in fine-tuning the armoury which restaurants have access to, by innovating to improve the grease-fighting products on offer.Stainless steel grease trap

    That might mean introducing greater automation to passive stainless steel grease traps or automatic grease traps or GRU's to make the clean-up operation easier or finding an innovation which means that their efficiency begins to fall when they are 75% full, rather than after the current 25% boundary.

    It could also mean boosting the efficiency of bio-dosers, such as GreasePak, with stronger yet safer strains of bacteria breaking down fats, oils and grease in drains or in traps.

    Both the government and the water industry could then take this lead to face the problem head-on.

    In The Sewers

    There’s considerable room for an upgrade.

    The Thames Supersewer – currently under construction – promises to bring with it a time when fatbergs in the capital will no longer cause raw sewage to flow straight into the river.

    What if such improvements were seen right across the country?

    Our current Victorian sewers are perfect breeding grounds for fatbergs. The plentiful supply of nooks and crannies in their rough walls are one reason why: FOGs cling to cracks and wait to attract more FOG - the masses of fats, oils and grease then snowball, particularly as wet wipes and other solid matter snags on the walls and lend a helping hand. Meanwhile, the tiny diameters of many sections of our sewers make them ripe for a blockage.

    Our sewer system is crying out for re-development. New sewers could have unblockable wide tunnels and smooth concrete walls which FOG would struggle to cling to.Cross section of large drain pipes

    What’s more, we could apply some of the technology we already have. Adding sensors to monitor build-ups of solid matter, for instance, or introducing large-scale bio-dosing, by maintaining a sewer environment which is favourable to the strains of bacteria which break down fats.

    With a standardised sewer system, we might even be able to borrow from the mining industry or take advantage of the soon-to-come leaps forward in Artificial Intelligence and robotics to ensure that no humans need to be tasked with breaking down fatbergs by hand – a machine could do the dirty work for us.

    Costs are, of course, the obstacle. But most fatbergs currently cost over a hundred thousand pounds to remove. How many fatberg-removals will it take before a sewer renovation becomes the cheaper alternative?

    As it stands a future without fatbergs seems quite far away. But there’s no reason to lose hope. In fact, it’s time to get practical and get down to business. Do your bit to stop FOGs entering our sewers, and bring a fatberg free future that little bit closer.

  • Poor Grease Management and FOG – the Effects on the Environment

     

    The idea of the climate breaking down is a terrifying thought – and it can be difficult to see how small acts can add up to create such a huge problem. Poor grease management is, nevertheless, part of that problem. Let’s take a closer look… 

    It All Begins with An Inefficient KitchenBottle and bowl of oil

    Letting fats and oils go to waste, by cooking with more oil than we need and failing to re-use as much as we can, is not only bad for our bank balances.

    Those wasted fats and oils have got to come from somewhere: whether we are talking about animal fats or plant-based oils, we are talking about the end product of a long agricultural and industrial process, both of which see massive amounts of energy expended and tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere, contributing to the climate crisis which we are now experiencing.

    Remembering that oil doesn’t just cost money, it costs carbon, and keeping waste to a minimum is one small, easy step which we can all take to help avoid the breakdown of the natural world: know how much oil you need to use, don’t use more and re-use what’s leftover. 

    Then: Don’t Block the Drain

    Though it might be inevitable that some will slip and slide down the plughole, letting fats, oils and grease go down the drain is never a good idea: FOGs block pipes.

    If your drains are blocked, you are much more likely to pour a whole load of drain-cleaning chemicals down your sink.

    Just like the fats and oils themselves, those chemicals have got to come from somewhere. Just like the fats and oils, those cleaning compounds are the end product of a long industrial process which also expends a huge amount of energy and also releases tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

    Keeping blockages to a minimum by being careful to avoid FOGs slipping down your sink is one more way to protect the planet.

    In the Sewers

    Goslyn GOS40 GRUAnother way to save the world is to install a grease trap or grease removal unit.

    Without one, the fats and oils which do go down the drain flow straight through into the sewer (together with those cleaning chemicals).

    In the sewer, fats, oils and grease congeal in the cold and solidify, slowing the flow of sewage before eventually snowballing into fatbergs which clog the sewer altogether.

    We know that fatbergs make it more likely that our sewers will overflow, releasing raw sewage directly into our waterways.

    But fatbergs also amplify the toxicity of the sewage: they trap and hold everything which tries to flow past in place, from human waste and food deposits to wet wipes, condoms and drugs.

    In the sewer’s cool damp conditions, without much oxygen, harmful strains of bacteria thrive with plenty of time to anaerobically break down what is in the sewage, producing toxic by-products.

    The environmental impact of this increase in toxicity comes into play when we try to…

    Clear Out the FatbergWater jet

    Fatberg extraction usually means a small team working for weeks with high-powered jet hoses to break down the berg. Usually working at night, they need lighting for the street and for the sewer. Then they need vans burning fuel to cart off chunks of the berg to a sewage treatment plant. This is a lot of energy which would not need to be used if it wasn’t for the fatberg.

    On top of this, fatbergs make sewage treatment far less efficient. The more toxic the sewage and the more solid the matter, the more processing that sewage needs: this means more energy and more industrial chemicals (like chlorine) need to be used to treat it.

    What comes out the other side will not look so pretty, either. When dealing with a fatberg, a lower proportion of clean water and a higher proportion of the waste product or sewage sludge will be produced than if the treatment plants only had to deal with the 3Ps (pee, poo, paper).

    What Can We Do?

    Thames Water and Argent Energy have teamed up to convert fatbergs into biodiesel, meaning that at least some of those sewer blockers can become fuel.

    While this does off-set the energy required to deal with the fatberg problem, however, not having a fatberg problem in the first place would be much better for the natural world.

    Install a grease trap or grease removal unit – and come back soon to read about the impact of poor grease management on wildlife.

     

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