There is a 21st century battle on the hands of water works and sewage cleaning companies across the globe. In London’s 19th-century sewers, crews are blasting away monster fatbergs that feed on grease and rubbish which have been flushed down the sinks and drains of homes and food serving outlets across the country.
London alone has 8.7 million residents, combine this with a Victorian-era sewer system and poor cooking habits, this equals a recipe for fatbergs. In 2017 there has been more awareness than ever on the cause, issue and solution to FATBERGS- but as we near the end of 2017, has it really made a difference to how we dispose of fats, oils and grease in an environmentally friendly method?
“The Victorians built a really good sewer network for us,” said Alex Saunders, waste network manager for London’s water treatment utility Thames Water, standing near a crew battling a fatberg in the city’s Chinatown. But, he adds, “the pressures of modern living, with our fatty diets, the takeaway [food], combined with things like wet wipes, that’s what causes the really big problem.”
Sticking with London, this capital of the UK seems to have had more publicity on fatbergs than any other major city. Thames Water deals with hundreds of blockages daily, but none like the recent Whitechapel fatberg, named after the neighbourhood in East London. The 132-tonne hard blob blocked the sewer and damaged its walls. Thames Water estimated its length at 250 metres — “longer than two Wembley football pitches,” the company said.
“The Whitechapel one,” Saunders said, “really does take the award for the biggest fatberg.” With this, we really doubt that this years publicity has had much of any effect on how we each individually try to avoid pouring fats, oil and grease down our sinks, is it just to convenient? In our hectic lifestyles do we have no time to think of what lies beneath or feet, or do we just need more time to adjust and adapt our living and cooking habits?
The increased prevalence of fatbergs has forced Thames Water to come up with ways to prevent them from happening in the first place. The company has been working with restaurants that cook with a lot of grease to remind them to collect it and throw it out, rather than dumping it down the drain. It has also instituted a campaign — “Bin it, don’t block it” — asking Londoners to help prevent fatbergs.
Thames Water has come up with an easy way to remember what should be put down the drain — only the “three P’s.”
That’s “pee, poo and toilet paper.”
So, if we have to put up with more fatbergs until everyone is on board, what do we do with the tons of fat and waste when it does clog the drains? Once a fatberg is broken up and sucked out of the sewers, the bits of blob generally end up in landfills. But all that’s changing going forward into 2018.
Some — from Whitechapel and elsewhere in the city — are pumped into trucks, then taken four hours northwest of London to Argent’s plant in Ellesmere Port, England. There the renewable energy producer is turning the wretched blobs into biofuel. Though Thames Water intends to do the same one day, for now Argent Energy says it is the only company successfully converting the slop into useable biodiesel.
“It’s really hard to handle because everything that’s in it has to be taken out,” said Dickon Posnett, the company’s director of corporate affairs. “The fat itself is pretty poor, rancid quality,” Posnett said, “so the technical bits later in the process have to work hard to turn it into a useful oil.” Some fuel is trucked back to London to power the city’s iconic double-decker buses. Thames Water estimated the Whitechapel fatberg alone would be converted into 10,000 litres of biofuel — enough to power 350 buses for a day.
So, there we have it, at the end of 2017 fatbergs are still being created but, at least they are being used for fuel. Who knows what the future has in store for our underground. Perhaps in 2018 we can all make the effort to stop throwing fat down the drain.