How to stop feed­ing fat­bergs

The dis­cov­ery of an­other hor­rific mon­ster-sized fat­berg, this time in Sid­mouth in Devon, raises the ques­tion: what can we do to stop them form­ing?

The Guardian - G2 - - News - Martin Be­lam

Vyki Sparkes is the cu­ra­tor of so­cial and work­ing his­tory at the Mu­seum of Lon­don, which put a chunk of the fat­berg dubbed “the Whitechapel Mon­ster” on dis­play early last year. She says: “From the con­ver­sa­tions we were hear­ing, it re­ally made peo­ple stop and think about their own be­hav­iour in a non-judg­men­tal way. It wasn’t about point­ing fingers, it was about tak­ing a col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity that we all have habits, and some aren’t nec­es­sar­ily ben­e­fi­cial to our ci­ties.”

Thames Water’s cam­paign to ed­u­cate peo­ple about how not to feed the fat­berg takes pains to re­mind us that toi­lets and sinks aren’t “magic por­tals”. There is a sim­ple set of rules for the bath­room: stick to flush­ing the three Ps: pee, poo and (toi­let) pa­per. Every­thing else – san­i­tary tow­els, nap­pies, cot­ton buds, con­doms, den­tal floss, used plas­ters and what­ever else you might think to chuck down the toi­let – should go into the bin.

Just be­cause a prod­uct says it is flush­able doesn’t mean it is biodegrad­able. Baby wipes might be a god­send to par­ents, but not to Vic­to­rian-era sew­er­age sys­tems. Wipes mar­keted as flush­able will prob­a­bly make their way down your toi­let, but will even­tu­ally clog up the pipes fur­ther along their jour­ney.

The kitchen is an­other area of con­cern. Water com­pa­nies are keen to bust the myth that run­ning hot water and pour­ing wash­ing-up liq­uid down the sink ahead of fats, oils or grease will stop them build­ing up and block­ing the pipes. Their rec­om­men­da­tion is to keep a small con­tainer, such as an old mar­garine tub, to hand, into which you can pour oil and fat be­fore safely dis­pos­ing of it in the bin.

Not fol­low­ing these rules can cre­ate a hor­ror such as the Whitechapel Mon­ster. “It was mas­sive and dis­gust­ing,” says Sparkes. “It started hatch­ing flies in the dis­play case, and grow­ing mould.”

But it did serve to raise Lon­don­ers’ aware­ness of the is­sue, show­ing that their habits “have an im­pact we don’t al­ways see”. The chunk of fat­berg is now in the mu­seum’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion. “We’ve made a per­ma­nent com­mit­ment to the fat­berg, to care for it as long as we can, to pass it on to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

But if we want those fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to in­herit work­ing sew­er­age sys­tems, we need to mod­ify our be­hav­iour. Fat­bergs are pri­mar­ily a prod­uct of our dis­pos­able life­styles. The so­lu­tion to them seems to be to en­sure that things that could clog up pipes end up in in­cin­er­a­tors or land­fill in­stead – a case of merely shift­ing the prob­lem, rather than solv­ing it.

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