“Don’t feed the fatberg” a sign at the London museum reads.
“Step right up, step right up! Come one, come all! Lay your eyes on one of the most incredible, the most heinous, the most outlandish sights you have ever seen — for just behind this curtain, pulled from the sewers beneath your very feet, sits The Beast, the monster fatberg of London!”
You’d be unlikely to stumble across a carnival barker hawking tickets to see the worlds largest-ever fatberg, but Museum of London employees, sure. London is home to three record-setting fatbergs, the biggest with a newly unveiled museum exhibit in an effort to draw attention to and educate the public on the fast-growing issue.
Fatbergs are a menacing mess, both above and below ground. But can they be tamed?
What is a Fatberg?
If you’re like me when I first heard the term, you have no idea what it is, are deeply pessimistic about it, and probably have a morbid fascination with learning what it is. Allow me to satisfy that desire.
A fatberg is a collection of non-disintegratable materials — anything from condoms and baby diapers to, increasingly, wet wipes, which often do not disintegrate after flushing — that find their way into a sewer system, come into contact with hunks of congealing fats and oils poured down drains by restaurants and people at home accumulating ad infinitum. With the rise of wet wipes a monster is born.
These hideous hunks of congealed oil and non-disintegratable materials are growing faster and larger than ever with the recent explosion of wet wipe usage among adults. And they’re wreaking havoc in cities all over the world and in virtually every state here at home, from Alaska and Hawaii to New York.
Historically fatbergs remained relatively small. But in today’s age of wet wipes, which act as a binding agent, fatbergs are growing faster and increasingly larger, restricting flow as they grow.
These fatbergs, and sometimes wet wipes all on their own, are making an even bigger mess above ground: Class-action lawsuits, false claim fines, multi-million (tax) dollar clean up jobs, and overflowing sewers.
The Beast — The Largest Fatberg to Date
London, with their large population and a sewer system dating back to Victorian times, has become something of a mecca for fatbergs. After setting back-to-back fatberg records, London set the largest fatberg record yet again.
In 2017, The Beast, as it has become known, weighed in at 143 tons, or 286,000 pounds, and stretched for an astonishing 820 feet, or two and a half football fields.
"This fatberg is up there with the biggest we've ever seen. It's a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it's set hard," said Matt Rimmer of Thames Water.
The Beast took crews, operating 24 hours a day, nine weeks to remove, to the tune of several million dollars. It is the final portion of this fatberg that is currently on display at the Museum of London.
“Don’t feed the fatberg,” reads a badge from the launch exhibit. The museum exhibit aims to inform the public that if you pour fats down the sink and flush wet wipes down the toilet it’s eventually going to grow into a monster.
Fatbergs and Wet Wipes are Growing Problem in U.S.
New York City has a particularly bad wet wipe and fatberg problem — from 2010 to 2015, NYC spent over $18 million cleaning fatbergs and wet wipes out of the system and repairing the damage they do. These are costs that are passed on to the taxpayer in the form of increased water rates.
There are more direct human impacts to wet wipe-caused fatbergs, too. Most notably, when they get very bad, the blockages they create and cause sewer overflows, where homes and businesses are at risk of being inundated with sewage.
In 2014, a Brooklyn doctor brought a class action lawsuit against a wet wipe maker for exactly that reason. Late last year a fatberg under the streets of Baltimore caused a backup that spewed 1.2 million gallons of raw sewage into the Jones Falls, a stream flowing through the center of the city.
And it’s not just fatbergs causing problems. Wet wipes all on their own are clogging sewers and getting caught in equipment. Hawaii, Alaska, Wisconsin, California, Oregon, Maine and many other states are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to clean up the problem. This has lead to debate over the use of the word “flushable” on wet wipe packaging. Recently, the District of Columbia has been in the courts in an effort to regulate its use.
How to Tame a Fatberg
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out where these fatbergs and wet wipe problems are occurring — the US and the UK are two of a number of countries with surging rates of wet wipe usage among adults, and places with exceedingly low bidet usage rates.
On the other hand, fatbergs are rare or even unheard of in countries like Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Greece, countries where bidets are very common.
While fatbergs can occur on their own, it wasn’t until the recent explosion of wet wipes that fatbergs have grown into record-setting, pipe-clogging, sewage-spewing monsters. In fact, wet wipes are the one constant between all of these mega-huge ‘bergs. Do I see a correlation?
Go ahead and add “they do not contribute to monster fatbergs lurking in city sewers waiting to cause raw sewage backups into your home” to the list of reason why bidets rock.
Written by Andrew Tobia
Illustration by Meia
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