Highbury Hollow

Battling a 130-Ton Fatberg in London’s Sewer

It’s an odd balance. Icebergs are melting. But the biggest fatberg ever recorded has congealed in London’s sewer. It’s 130 tons and 250 yards of cooking fat, wipes, diapers and other stuff folks should never have flushed down the drain. Breaking it up and removing it will take three weeks of hard, smelly work.

An Ancient Problem Growing Worse

Romans used slaves to clean out their sewers. Fat has long been a major culprit, simply because it tends to clump and build up in a cold sewer. In 1884, Nathaniel Whiting patented the first modern design for a grease trap. His design is still useful more than a century later.

But now, two things are making the problem worse.

First, people just keep eating more and more grease. Even in the U.S., despite years of low-fat dogma, we’re eating much more fat than we were in 1970.

And in growing economies around the world, growing populations eat more fats and oils, especially as their populations grow more affluent.

Secondly, we have disposable wipes and related products adding to the problem. Eager to sell their product, marketers call them flushable. But when they meet up with grease in a sewer system, they become the core of a malignant fatberg. And then other personal health and hygiene products join the party.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

Fortunately, we have a Fulbright scholar hard at work on this problem. Tom Curran at University College Dublin is working on strategies and sensors for mapping fatbergs before they get big enough to cause serious problems.

Thames Water has partnered with a biofuels company to recycle the fatbergs it finds and removes from its sewer system. How’s that for renewable energy?

Finally, public awareness campaigns have helped some communities. Extra holiday fat from turkeys and roasts inspired Thames Water to bring out “Sewer Singers.” And to ensure you pay attention, there’s a giant turkey mascot to drive the point home.

Trash it, don’t flush it, folks!

Click here to read more about London’s epic fatberg and here to read more about fatbergs around the world.

Highbury Hollow, photograph © sub-urban.com / flickr

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September 14, 2017