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FatbergsSeptember 20, 2017
It’s a hallmark dilemma of the developed world, where the remnants of decadent everyday conveniences (fast food, “flushable” wipes) congeal within aging urban infrastructure and threaten to blow it all to smithereens.
Meet the fatberg, a monstrosity made of discarded cooking oil and wipes, but also condoms, sanitary napkins, diapers, and other items that form a clot in a sewer system. A record-breaking specimen —250 meters (820 ft) long and and 130 tonnes (143 tons)—was discovered in a Victorian-era tunnel in Whitechapel last week.
Revolting, right? Except, don’t you kind of want to see (if not smell) one?
The term fatberg is mostly a Britishism, also used in Australia. In the US, the problem is commonly called FOG, an acronym for fat, oil, and grease.
The revolutionary idea that baby wipes aren’t just for babies has driven huge sales of supposedly flushable wet wipes. Sniffing a business opportunity in the disruption of ordinary toilet paper, consumer goods companies like Procter & Gamble have rushed out products like “Moist Mates,” while niche offerings like One Wipe Charlies (“Enjoy the soft, clean, manly way to wipe”) and Dude Wipes are aimed at the bro market.
Flushability, however, is subjective. They go down the loo alright, but sanitation experts say that wipes don’t disintegrate when exposed to water, like TP does. So they can easily get snagged inside a house’s old pipes, causing massive clogs, or make it into the sewer system where … you know the rest.
Lawsuits have erupted, with city sanitation department suing wipe makers and, just this week, Kimberly-Clarke suing the District of Columbia for its ban on wipes using the term “flushable.” The bottom line: There’s no truce in sight in the flushability wars, and that means more fatbergs to come.
The BBC takes a look at a jumbo jet–sized fatberg that smells “a bit like vomit, with undertones of poo.”
Which of these items has never appeared in a fatberg?
30 tons: One sewer processing plant in Birmingham supplies the green fuel manufacturer Argent Energy with 30 tons of fatberg every week.
$2.5 billion: Industry-wide figures are hard to come by, but Euromonitor estimates that 2015 North American sales of personal wipes—including general purpose, baby, feminine hygiene, and cosmetic—rose 3% from 2014.
London’s sewers are a 1,100 mile (1,770 km) network of hand-laid brick tunnels, lovingly built by Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s, the year of the Great Stink. The Victorian masterpiece once heralded as a wonder of the industrial world is now under severe strain.
While the sewers did a superb job of sanitizing London in a time of rampant cholera, they were built to serve a little over 2 million people, not the nearly 9 million living there now. The result is frequent sewage overflows.
The squad charged with the system’s care and maintenance—including fatberg removal—are known as flushers. When they encounter a fatberg, they remove it by cutting it into bits and hauling it off in trucks, or flushing it out with high-powered hoses.
Thames Water says it will take a crew of eight people about three weeks to dismantle the gargantuan fatberg.
“This fatberg is up there with the biggest we’ve ever seen. It’s a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it’s set hard,” said Matt Rimmer, head of waste networks. “It’s basically like trying to break up concrete.”
Most of the fatberg will be carted off to a recycling center, where the cooking fats can be converted into biofuel. (The fatbergs are heated to melt out the fat and oil, and filtered to squeeze out debris and sludge, leaving behind clean oil.)
However, the Museum of London has requested that it receive a chunk of the Whitechapel fatberg for its permanent collection, saying it “calls to attention the way we live our lives in a modern city.”
— Dan McIntyre, a guy in London who gets the fatberg fanatic award, in the email he sent to Thames Water requesting access to the sewer to see a fatberg in the wild as an anniversary surprise for his girlfriend. (It worked.)
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