Fatbergs seem to be forming everywhere. Across the country, fats, oils and grease (FOG) are slipping and sliding down drains and into our sewers where they cool and solidify into huge sewer-blocking masses over time.
These discoveries have left many wondering: who’s to blame?
Everyone’s got an idea of who to point the finger at, but, as with any finger-pointing, the reality is often more complicated than it seems.
Let’s look a little closer.
The Usual Suspects
If the finger is being pointed anywhere, it’s being pointed at fast food businesses.
Fast food joints get a bad rap. From the chippy on the high street to the Chinese on the corner, these businesses crank out deep fried mains, snacks and sides.
They clearly use more cooking oil than any other small businesses. And, because they use the most oil – everyone assumes – they must be the worst FOG offenders and the plague of fatbergs we are facing must be down to them.
But, with an awareness of fatbergs on the rise, more and more fast food business owners are facing up to the FOG problem and their own environmental, legal and even moral obligations. They’re getting clued up and it’s clear why: being in the know is good for business.
For one, cooking oil itself is costly. So, most fast food businesses use sophisticated oil filtration – cleaning their cooking oil regularly so that it can be re-used, over and over, the maximum number of times. In this way, fast food businesses not only give their profit margins a boost, but they also reduce their FOG output.
And then there’s the risk of water company fines. Fatbergs cost water companies over £100,000 each to remove and those costs are increasingly being passed onto those businesses which are deemed responsible, in the form of fines. Fast food joint owners know that when a fatberg is found near them, water company inspectors will come knocking on the doors of local businesses – and they’ll start with the chippy.
Knowing this, most fast food business owners are sure to keep their grease management practices up to scratch. They install high quality grease traps and they clean them out regularly, while sometimes throwing in a few add-ons, such as bio-dosers, which further reduce the risk of their businesses allowing stray fats, oils and grease to make it into the sewers.
Increasingly, the usual suspects are becoming ever more conscious of the FOG problem and doing what they can to tackle it. People are realising that their initial suspicions of takeaways and fast food joints being the origins of troublesome fatbergs are being challenged.
Anyone Can Contribute to the Fatberg Problem
The fats, oils and grease which are necessary to form a fatberg can come from anywhere.
At the end of 2019, a fatberg the size of three elephants was found beneath Strangeways prison in Manchester. The culprit: the prison canteen. While an individual meal may require only a small amount of oil to be used, and produce only a small amount of FOG waste – that FOG waste adds up if you make three meals a day, seven days a week for nearly one and a half thousand people.
The same is true for the canteens attached to hospitals, office blocks, universities and schools. Without good grease management, these large kitchens feeding huge numbers of people numerous times a day will end up sending tons of FOG down the drains.
But at least these kitchens are staffed by professionals. Those pros are more likely to be up to date on the issues facing the industry – and, therefore, they are more likely to be doing something about the FOG problem.
The same cannot be said for:
As the 64 metre fatberg found in the quiet seaside town of Sidmouth showed us, a town doesn’t need to be bustling with huge numbers of FOG producing food businesses to produce a berg. A town of retirees can do that pretty much on their own.
It can be confusing and complicated for members of the public to get rid of their used cooking oil. So, much of it ends up being poured down the sink through sheer convenience. As households are also very unlikely to have a grease trap or indeed any other grease management solution, that FOG goes straight to the sewers.
An individual household’s FOG output is small, even over a year, relative to a small business. But, added, up, the FOG output of a town or city of residential homes can be huge.
Add to that the impact of the wet wipes which many people are still flushing down their loos without a second thought – sending them into the sewers where they become key to the structure of fatbergs – and it is clear that the general public play their part in creating the FOG problem.
But few people think they do anything which could be helping to cause the monstrosities in our sewers, after all, their input is so small it can’t be making a difference, can it?
Which brings us onto:
As Britain becomes a nation of coffee drinkers, with a café on every corner, vast quantities of waste coffee grounds are being produced. Coffee grounds don’t break down.
Ideally, they should be sent to the compost heap, but, in the rush and hurry of a coffee shop, this can seem like just a little too much work – some of those grounds will inevitably be sent spilling into the sink.
We don’t yet know whether they really do help produce fatbergs, because the study of fatbergs is in its infancy. We only know that it is unlikely that those coffee grounds and other small solids do much to help the situation.
Cafés may be just another example of how we all, often unwittingly, contribute to the fatberg problem in our own way.
So What’s the Answer to the FOG Problem?
It’s not just down to the usual suspects behaving badly. In fact, as those usual suspects begin to behave much better than everyone else, the fingers are beginning to point at the rest of us and the usual suspects are actually the unusual suspects.
We all need to take our FOG responsibilities seriously. That means businesses getting tough on grease with more grease traps and bio-dosers, and more regular cleaning and maintenance routines. It means households getting to know how to avoid putting FOG down the drains and it means catching any solid matter before it enters our sewers by installing something as simple as a sink strainer, at home and at the office.
Solving the fatberg problem requires teamwork – do your bit today.