Fatty McFatberg and its fellow fatbergs

At the beginning of May this year, the term ‘fatberg’ was added to the Scrabble dictionary. Previously, the Oxford English Dictionary had defined the term as “a very large mass of solid waste in a sewerage system” back in 2015. The move follows the discovery of three record-breaking fatbergs in the UK earlier this year, collectively weighing the equivalent of 5 Boeing 737 planes.

Fatbergs consist of non-biodegradable material including wet wipes, sanitary products, cooking fats and oils, dental floss, nappies and cotton wool that becomes lodged in the sewage system and accumulates over time. Eventually, the mass solidifies to become an underground concrete jungle of fat. As you can imagine, the 60 year-old Victorian sewage systems has difficulties handling this; they were designed only for faeces and toilet paper. Fatbergs, therefore, wreak havoc for life above-ground: think a blocked drain but then make that block 90 times bigger…

In January this year, a 64 metre fatberg was discovered in the sewage system below Sidmouth, Devon. The 34 tonne sewage-boulder resembled the length of over 6 double decker buses and took around 8 weeks to remove. A similar mass was found in Liverpool in February which measured 84 metres (that’s 8 double decker buses) and weighed 90 tonnes. The final fatberg discovered so far this year was in Islington, London, weighing in at 105 tons and measuring 100 metres (9 and a half double decker buses). The London ‘concreteberg’ was discovered mid-April so there is still some work to be done until the fatberg has been completely removed!

If you thought that that was devastating enough, these come after a 250 metre fatberg was discovered in the sewage system of Whitechapel in London in 2017. The 143 tonne ‘concreteberg’ measured the same as 24 double decker buses and weighed more than the Devon and Liverpool fatbergs put together. In fact, the fatberg was so large it was labelled as a London tourist attraction after it reached 1 billion people on Twitter and was christened ‘Fatty McFatberg’ following a social media polly, only narrowly beating ‘Fat the Ripper’.

Fatbergs are removed from sewage systems by being blasted with high-pressure water jets and the broken-down waste is taken to recycling facilities. However, the cost of removing large fatbergs such as those in Devon, Liverpool and Islington costs around £100k, and the Whitechapel mass will have cost even more. It is therefore important to mitigate the formation of fatbergs before they accumulate to form significant blockages.

Thames Water distribute a ‘bin it, don’t block it’ message throughout its social media accounts to prevent the disposal of household waste in sinks and toilets. This includes making sure cooking fats and oils are disposed of into the bin and not poured down the sink. One of the main offenders are wet wipes, as even those labelled as ‘flushable’ still block drains. This is due to slack industry standards that allow wipes, which could accumulate in pipe corners over 45 degrees, to be marked as ‘flushable’ when in fact they really aren’t.
If we’ve learnt anything from the invasion of these fatty clogs, it’s that we should not be putting anything other than toilet paper down our drains. Otherwise we may end up seeing a lot more fatbergs in our sewers in the near future.

image source: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images