Last August, as the people of Kingston upon Thames were enjoying the heatwave, a festering beast was lurking deep in the sewers, with designs on turning the residents’ lovely summer into a decidedly more poo-filled one. Known only as The Fatberg, this 15-tonne blob comprised of congealed fat, rotting food scraps, wet wipes and a whole host of other disgusting ephemera, and was believed to be the result of residents lazily tossing any old thing down the drain instead of disposing of their waste properly.
The Fatberg grew largely unnoticed, probably over the space of decades, until locals started complaining that their toilets were not flushing properly. It was then that the brave team at Thames Water investigated further and discovered the double-decker-bus sized lump of fetid garbage threatening to blow the London sewerage system wide open.
Had The Fatberg been left to grow at its own devices, experts predicted that the blockage in the drainage system would have caused raw sewerage to squirt out of manholes and seep up through the floorboards of homes and businesses in the South West London area. Already, The Fatberg had reduced the 2.4 metre diameter drain to just 5% of its normal capacity.
Gordon Hailwood, Waste Contracts Supervisor at Thames Water said to the press at the time, “While we’ve removed greater volumes of fat from under central London in the past, we’ve never seen a single, congealed lump of lard this big clogging our sewers before.” He continued, “Given that we’ve got the biggest sewers and this is the biggest ‘fatberg’ we’ve encountered, we reckon it has to be the biggest such berg in British history.” How the Fatberg Was Destroyed
It took Gordon and his team three weeks to destroy the rancid, record-breaking blob. Blasting the grease and debris away with high powered water jets, until all of the stinking, yellow stalactites in the drainage system had been successfully broken up.
Simon Evans, a spokesperson for Thames Water described The Fatberg as a “heaving, sick-smelling, rotting mass of filth and faeces. It hits the back of your throat, its gross,” he said. He continued, “It’s steaming and it unleashes an unimaginable stink. Haliwood and his team certainly saved Kingston from a terrible fate.”
After The Fatberg had finally been dispatched, it took another six weeks for workers to repair the sewerage network and return it back to normal. But could there have been an alternative method for dealing with this giant ball of grease? Alternative Uses for the Fatberg
Despite The Fatbergs’ filthy origins, Rob Smith, Chief Flusher for London’s sewer networks, believes that the blob could have been burned down and converted into ‘clean’ energy. According to Smith, the dense fat and oils that made up the structure of The Fatberg were highly calorific and would have been useful for producing energy. He estimated that removing and burning the fatty mass in a turbine would have produced approximately 130 gigawatt-hours of energy a year, enough to power 40,000 London homes.
Environmentalists also argue that waste fat from businesses should be collected and used to generate renewable energy. One well-known international fast food outlet apparently uses more than 60,000 litres of cooking oil every year to produce biodiesel, which then is used to fuel its fleet of vehicles. Clever! And London Mayor Boris Johnson agrees that this ingenious waste renewal idea is “the way of the future,” and he would ideally like to see London’s buses running on the stuff. He said, “By capturing it right here in London and turning it into biodiesel we could provide 20% of the fuel needed to power London’s entire bus fleet while saving thousands of tonnes of C02 and creating hundreds of new jobs. Here is huge potential to unlock the value in used cooking oil and turn it to our economic advantage.”
But until Londoners and people in the rest of the country learn their lesson about preventing fatbergs from forming in the first place, developing these kinds of schemes will remain a long way off.
How to Prevent Future Fatbergs –Do’s and Don’ts
When it comes to proper waste disposal there are a few do’s and don’ts that everybody needs to take on board to prevent a fatberg attack in the future. These include; • Don’t pour animal fats, vegetable oil, lard, grease, butter or margarine down the sink ever because the grease will solidify in the drainage system over time and create blockages. Instead, pour these waste oils into an old bottle or wipe it up with kitchen towels and discard of it with your normal household rubbish. Note: garbage disposal systems will not prevent fat from entering the system.
• Do set up fat traps under your sinks if you’re a restaurant owner, to catch any unwanted oils efficiently.
• Don’t put food scraps down the sink, as these can also cause blockages.
• Don’t flush wet wipes down the toilet. In recent months, various companies have claimed that their brand of moistened wet wipe is a suitable alternative to toilet paper, but the reality is that although these towelets do flush and eventually break down, they don’t break down as rapidly as conventional loo roll. A wet wipe when flushed will typically hang around the sewers for a lot longer picking up every bit of grease and filth it encounters until it snowballs into a big old greasy fatberg.
• Do dispose of sanitary towels, wet wipes, nappies, condoms and the like in your bathroom waste bin. Things like tampons are suitable for flushing, however they do not break down quickly and they can easily snag on your plumbing system and cause blockages over time.
• Do be careful about how you dispose of household cleaners. If the product in question is water-soluble then it can safely go down the drain. For example, things like ammonia, bleaches, fabric softeners, disinfectant cleaners and multi-surface cleaners are usually ok. But of course check the label for proper instruction before you do this, flush the product down in small quantities and run some hot water down with it at the same time.
• Don’t ever put corrosive, harmful substances down the drain because it harms the water supply and environment. For example, pesticides, battery acid, nail varnish, motor oil and paints are all toxic waste. Check your local council website for advice on how to properly dispose of these chemicals.
• Do ensure that if you have a septic tank you do not pour things down the drain that take a long time to break down. Things like coffee grinds, medicines, egg shells, paper towels and food scraps can cause blockages. Evo Cleaning is committed to monitoring and reducing the company’s carbon footprint and taking a step-wise approach to meeting these key environmental goals. For more information, check out our Health and Safety Policy Statement.
When Waste Attacks! Other Preventable Man-Made Catastrophes of Recent Times Many of us are all too aware of the devastation that humans have caused to the environment over the years. Nuclear disasters, oil spills, deforestation, depleting the ozone layer etc. But let’s look at some of the other, less famous but equally as preventable, man-made catastrophes that have occurred in recent times.
The Pacific Gyre garbage patch is a swirling mass of plastics gathered together by the currents of the Pacific ocean to form what the media has dubbed a ‘Trash Island’ that’s believed to have been twice the size of Texas. Things like cigarette lighters, toothbrushes and other plastic items tossed into the sea are the cause, however scientists are unsure of how to best filter out the garbage and get it recycled. Bigger items could in theory be caught in nets, but smaller, already broken down bits of plastic would be near impossible to filter out of the sea and it’s already starting to have a devastating effect on wildlife.
Dead zones are areas of the sea that have low oxygen (hypoxic) due to man-made pollution with things like pesticides and other harmful chemicals being dumped into the sea. There are believed to be 405 of these ‘dead zones’ in oceans all over the world and marine life cannot be sustained in any of these areas. The good news is that dead zones are reversible and governments in reducing their industrial emissions in the past have seen improvement to hypoxic environments over time.
In 1978, residents of Love Canal in upstate New York started to notice waste and ‘blue goo’ bubbling up through their basement floors. Plants and trees in the surrounding neighbourhoods were also turning black and slowly dying in what at the time must have looked like a scene from an apocalyptic film. Eventually, the government had to admit that the land had once been the dumping site for over 21,000 tons of toxic industrial waste and Love Canal’s residents all had to be evacuated and the site cleared. If you have any comments on the fatberg story, or know of any similar public health catastrophes, please share your thoughts in comments below.