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.
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.
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.
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.