Fatbergs Can Tell Us a Lot About Ourselves…
Their very existence tells us how our growing population with its love of fatty fast food is putting a strain on our Victorian sewers.
Meanwhile, the hard-to-dispose-of FOGs and wet wipes that make up the bulk of a fatberg tell us about our love for convenience: we flush them down the drain because it’s easy, because it puts what we don’t know what to do with out of sight and out of mind.
Tucked between those big baddies are our secrets, evidence of what we do behind closed doors as fatbergs swallow up everything from our old condoms to our syringes.
Meanwhile, the chemical components of the bergs can give us a clue to understanding our collective consciousness: besides the caffeine and paracetamol that you might expect, there’s the cocaine and MDMA from our wild nights out, our weekend release at the end of a dull procession of nine to fives, and the even greater quantities of steroids, taken as part of our 21st century body image obsession.
Fatbergs can tell us a lot about ourselves – we’ve only got to look at them in the right way.
And We Have Been Looking
For a while last year everyone was talking about them. Multiple headlines cropped up in national newspapers through late 2017 and early 2018 telling us all about these masses of solidified sewage.
In early 2018, the Museum of London put on an exhibition, Fatberg!, which centred around chunks of the 250m Whitechapel sewer-blocker.
A few months after that, Channel 4 followed the trend with a documentary, Fatberg Autopsy, in which parts of an even bigger fatberg were dissected for a mainstream TV audience.
We heard all about it.
But Did Anything Change?
In short, very little: fatbergs are just as much a problem as before.
Asking why that is might give us an even greater insight into the modern world.
And this might be one reason:
We all know that there’s a lot wrong with the world and we have all heard that our attention spans are shortening for some reason or other.
The combination of the two means that a news story about fatbergs has to compete for attention with stories about hundreds, even thousands, of other issues on any given day.
To compete, last year’s fatberg news stories, exhibitions and documentaries often resorted to scary and exciting descriptions of monsters, titanic tasks and battles against sinister forces in our sewers.
Those words caught our attention and we may have talked about fatbergs for a little while afterwards, but our conversation didn’t end with us all solving the problem together.
The best way to tackle fatbergs is for businesses and individuals to make small adjustments to the way they work and live. Basically: put grease traps in your drains and only ever flush the 3Ps (pee, poo and toilet paper). Individual acts add up to make a huge difference.
But, faced with an apparently monstrous fatberg epidemic of unimaginable proportions, these small-scale responses sound pretty feeble. Nobody on the Titanic saw the iceberg right ahead and reached for their box of matches.
It’s no wonder that few actually changed their ways.
Now We Need to Change How We Talk About Fatbergs
As we talk about them, it is tempting to focus on the catastrophic end result and make people listen up that way, but we’ve got to face up to the much harder task of making a slowly moving process sound interesting and attention grabbing.
We’ve got to recognise that the big scary fatberg is the end product of a very slow evolution with a huge number of steps: a cup of cooking oil poured down the sink meets a wet wipe in the sewers and, sometime after that, the pair meet more fat, more wet wipes, more condoms and sanitary pads, until, over months or even years, the whole lot snowballs into an immense immovable blockage.
If we put the emphasis on the gradual build-up of the bergs, we might all be better able to see how our fatberg problem can be overcome in the same way that fatbergs form, through a huge number of little steps of our own.
We might recognise that one cup of oil saved from the drain is one cup the fatberg will never gain, and learn to love our grease traps.