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Last month we witnessed a ‘monster’ fatberg in the UK sewage network; one of many in recent years forming under developed cities around the globe, from Brisbane to Baltimore. The Guardian reported that the London fatberg weighed the same as ‘11 double decker buses’ and stretched ‘the length of two football pitches’.
Fatbergs occur when oils, fats and grease are washed down drains and combine with items like wet wipes and nappies. We have discussed the problem with wet wipes before in other blogs, and the concern with labelling them ‘flushable’. They are simply not ‘flushable’; although they can pass through a toilet’s u-bend, they don’t disintegrate in water like toilet paper. By their very nature they are designed to be robust when wet, in fact they even go a step further as they can absorb fats and oils, which only adds to the problem.
Millions of litres of oil are washed down London’s drains every year, from both domestic and industrial sources. It is the industrial sources that are causing most problems (just like the recent fatberg in London which was under Chinatown). As food outlets continue to pour their oil down the drain, and consumers continue to ‘flush the unflushable’, the problem just gets worse.
Treating at Source
The clean-up of London’s most recent monster fatberg will take weeks, with engineers working around the clock with high-powered water jets and shovels to break it up.
Surely, therefore it makes more sense to treat this problem at the source, by educating food outlets and consumers alike on the implications of their actions.
Added to education, transformational steps must be taken, with those in waste management and infrastructure alike calling for a change in the labelling of ‘flushable’ wet wipes.
Food outlets also should avail of the services of waste cooking oil collectors, who will deliver fresh oil to their premises while collecting waste oil at the same time, then cleaning and selling it for future use, an excellent example of a circular economy model.
A Glimmer of Hope
The glimmer of hope from this recent blockage is that the mass of waste is enough to produce 10,000 litres of biodiesel. While it doesn’t offset the costs for resources needed to break up the fatberg, it does allow for the material to be sent to a nearby recycling centre.
However, the oil at source will always be higher quality and more economically viable than the oil recovered from a fatberg, and some of the waste material will still go to landfill.
Therefore, surely it is time to put the shovels down and start coming up with a plan for educating the wider public about the importance of keeping our sewer networks free from fatbergs.