Above the Waterline: The Tip of the “Fatberg”

A "fatberg" pulled from an Atlanta sewer drain.
A “fatberg” pulled from an Atlanta sewer drain.

By Sally Bethea

In 2013, a massive “fatberg” weighing nearly as much as a school bus was removed from a London sewer. Water utility officials described it as a 15-ton behemoth of “wrongly flushed, festering food fat mixed with wet wipes.” It broke the sewer and cost more than half a million (ratepayer) dollars to repair, according to The Guardian.

A fatberg is a blob-like lump of waste that forms when cooking oil and other fats are poured down household and restaurant drains; the oil congeals and combines with other debris, including wet wipes and sanitary items. The result: municipal and residential pipes can become clogged and in some cases totally blocked.

“If fat is like the mortar, wet wipes are the bricks in fatbergs,” noted a London water official.

The flow of untreated sewage and wastewater that backs up behind these gooey blobs has to go somewhere, so it spews from the pipes through manholes and cracks and spills into nearby creeks.

Atlanta’s Watershed Management Department says that grease and wet wipes constitute about 75 percent of the clogs in city pipes. Last year, the city spent $4 million to replace two centrifuges that had been compromised by wipes; the overhaul of existing centrifuges can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Despite marketing claims, most wipes do not disintegrate and are not bio-degradable. They are not made to be flushed and typically say so on the packaging, but often in fine print. While wipes have been around since the 1950s, they began to be mass-produced in the 1990s, in response to a demand for baby-wipes-for-adults to serve a wide variety of purposes. It has been reported that wet wipe consumption has nearly tripled in the past decade.

A Consumer Reports test performed with a lab stirrer revealed that a sheet of toilet paper fell apart after about eight seconds in swirling water, as it was designed to do; however, a ‘flushable’ wipe didn’t even fray after half an hour.

So, what to do about this nasty and expensive problem?

First, only three things should go down your toilet drain: pee, poop and toilet paper. To properly dispose of your personal wet wipes, place them in household garbage. Kitchen grease should be poured into a jar or coffee can, cooled and also discarded in household garbage.

On Sept. 1, I  joined the City of Atlanta to launch a new campaign to raise public awareness about the proper disposal of wet wipes and grease with a goal of keeping our streams clean and more money in our pocketbooks.

Sally BetheaSally Bethea is the retired executive director of Chattahoochee Riverkeeper (chattahoochee.org), a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect and restore the drinking water supply for nearly four million people.

1 Comment
  1. There’s a problem: we need to stop flushing items not designed to be flushed.

    INDA is collaborating with manufacturers, wastewater agencies and communities to build awareness about safe disposal practices.

    Roughly 90% of the items found in sewage pump inlet screens are not designed to be flushed including paper towels, napkins, baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, and household wipes.

    The real issue is that we are flushing many products not designed to be flushed.

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