Insights from fighting the fatberg 2019

Last month the SwiftComply team headed off to the British Water FOG Conference. This years event was appropriately titled Fighting Fatbergs and if you have been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll know why.  

Fatbergs are enormous solid masses fat, oil and grease (FOG), along with many other products like wet wipes that congeal together. As Fatbergs form and grow, waste begins to move more slowly through the sewer. Eventually, the Fatberg stops moving all together and starts to back up.

Over the last few years, the increased use and disposal of fat, oil, and grease has put more pressure on an aging sewer system. FOG is increasingly causing daily disruptions to local businesses and the community as the sewer clogs; pipes break and harmful materials overflow into the streets and rivers. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Whitechapel fatberg, which was 250 metres long and weighed in at over 130 tonnes.

The time and cost associated with this clean up are huge, the Thames Water company spends upwards of £1million a month clearing fatbergs and blockages in the Greater London area alone. Thames Water deals with over 55,000 fatbergs and blockages a year. Perhaps the most famous of these was the Whitechapel Fatberg which weighed the same as 11 double-decker buses and took an eight-man crew three weeks to clear.And it’s not just major cities that are having to deal with the effects of fatbergs. Many smaller towns and seaside villages have had to invest significant funds in the fight against fat.

Fatbergs have become so notorious that they now have there own place of dishonour in the Oxford dictionary

Fatberg: A very large mass of solid waste in a sewerage system, consisting especially of congealed fat and personal hygiene products that have been flushed down toilets’.

As aging sewers continue to strain under the increased threat of fatbergs, waste water utilities and local governments have started to look at new ways to prevent fatbergs at the source before they even have a chance to grow. Here at SwiftComply we focus on educating food service entrepreneurs about the treat of FOG to their business and the wider community as a whole. The complexities of how businesses create  and manage fat, oils and grease mean that continuous education about the issue is key to providing a long term solution.

With all of this in mind, we made our way down to Cranfield University to get a better idea of some of the main strategies which the industry leaders are utilising to change the way business and the wider public think about and deal with FOG. Check out some of our takeaways from three different Water companies who spoke at the event.

Thames Water

Lauren Makowski of Thames Water discussed the need for on-site visits to remind foodservice entrepreneurs about their responsibilities regarding the safe disposal of FOG.

What was striking about Thames Water’s approach when compared to other water companies in the UK is the proactive strategies they employed. 88% of visits are proactive educational visits and only 12% of visits have occurred because of specific issues which have required formal enforcement action.

FSE’s who are unwilling to engage with Thames Water have then placed monitoring system and any sewage issues caused by the FSE are moved straight to formal procedures and they are made aware of this beforehand.

Australian Water

In contrast to Thames approach, Kerry Hall from the Australian Water Association discussed the strict approach they take with businesses to ensure that they are disposing of their FOG sustainable.

In recent years balls of grease washing up on Sydney’s beaches has attracted a lot of media attention and increased awareness among the general public. In Australia FSE’s are categorized as low, medium and high risk to give the correct amount of inspections and offer the correct advice for managing FOG.

These range from FSEs that produce little to no FOG and those that do activities of an industrial nature which results in the discharge of large volumes of FOG. Like Thames Water, visits are made to FSEs to primarily educate them and ensure that they are aware of regulations surrounding the legal disposal of FOG.

However it is clear that Australian Water companies have stricter regulations on their side when compared to their UK counterparts. Authorized officers are able to fine and also disconnect businesses from the sewage network for non-compliance.

South West Water

Paul Ineson of South West Water also discussed their domestic engagement scheme. ‘Think Sink’ and ‘Love Your Loo.’ These were behavioral change campaigns targeted at groups who may unknowingly contribute to blockages – for example, parents who were flushing wet wipes down the toilet. Their aim is to create teach their customers to utilize positive habits and routines which protect their sewers.

The Love your Loo pilot campaign was launched in August 2015 and was initially geared at developing a greater understanding of the best ways to engage and communicate in a way that stimulated real behavioral change and tackled the root cause, not just the symptoms. The success of the campaign can be seen in the 49% reduction in paper-rag blockages at various postcode levels.

Unfortunately in 2019 a fatberg was discovered in Sidmouth which was the size of six double decker buses and was up of FOG as well as wet wipes, food waste, nappies, condoms and other refuse. The gases coming from this fatberg were so strong that it could make a Go Pro explode. This example highlights the need for continuous education of the public and businesses that handle food.