Today I learned a new word. A new phenomenon. The fatberg.
What is a fatberg, you ask? I asked the same question while scrolling through today’s news. Here is what I learned:
A fatberg is essentially a giant clump of “stuff” that was never intended for the sewers, but ends up conglomerating and clogging up sewage tunnels. These massive structures of densely-compacted waste cause blockage and overflows, while also requiring a team of people to work for days or even weeks to break them up. It is said that they can be as strong as concrete. The fatbergs, that is, not the people. Although probably the people too.
Common components that make up a fatberg include non-flushable wipes, paper towels, diapers, feminine hygiene products, condoms, and the ‘glue’ element of oils, fats and grease.
Let’s look at a few cases from the not so distant past. In London in 2014, an airplane-sized clog was found stretching 260 feet (80m) and contained the usual ingredients, plus things like wood planks and tennis balls. Taking over two months to clear, the 130 ft (40m) fatberg found in Chelsea in 2015 caused an estimated £400,000 in damages. The Whitechapel Fatberg of 2017 was a gigantic collection of London’s flushed away waste which managed to clog about one sixth of a mile (250m) of the sewer system below the city and weighed the equivalent of 11 double decker buses (over 150 tons). Using high-powered hoses and pick-axes, eight people worked twenty-one days straight to break up the clot. That’s a lot of work and a lot of waste!
The one in the news today lives beneath the streets of Baltimore, Maryland. In some areas, 85% of the sewer opening is clogged with congealed fats and grease, along with the solidified mounds of non-flushables.
These are just examples, and many cities around the world have suffered from these glaciers of grease. Not only is the thought of such a phenomenon a bit gross, but there are also environmental and public health concerns associated with them. The ‘berg in Baltimore has caused two severe overflows, one of which released about 1.2 million gallons of sewage into a nearby waterway. More than just being polluted in the form of trash waste, it is also contaminated with human excrement.
These occurrences are entirely preventable. There are two key groups of components to discuss – the solid waste items that should not be flushed down a toilet and the liquids that should not be poured down a drain.
The easiest and first step is simply to not dispose of these things into the sewer. If we want to take it a step further we can find better methods of disposal, such as composting used paper towels. But if we really are focusing on sustainability in the long run, the best thing would be to become less wasteful and adopt reusable versions of these items that would not need to be discarded at all. Cloth diapers, ‘unpaper towels,’ and washable fabric pads are much better options than constantly discarding the single-use versions.
Eventually I will post more in-depth about each of these items, but for the moment we will focus on the sewers. I mentioned that this site is about encouraging small steps to make steady progress, so let’s talk about the beginning of the process. I want to present a little homework assignment to get you thinking about how you can help prevent situations like this by responsibly disposing of things that cannot and should not be flushed or dumped down the drain.
Homework: Think back as far as you can – what have you flushed down a toilet or dumped down a drain that was not suited for the sewers? How could you have disposed of those things differently in order to avoid them ending up in fatbergs? What can you change, starting now, to build helpful habits for properly disposing of these things in the future? And looking ahead, how can you replace these disposables with reusables to avoid creating this waste in the first place?