Don’t flush wet wipes, people! Don’t pour fat down the drain! They will glom onto each other like sequins onto Mariah Carey, and you’ll end up with a 10-ton fatberg the size of a double-decker bus. It happened last month in London. The fatberg took 10 days to blast away and caused $600,000 in damage. It was super gross.
A fatberg is the perfect storm of citizen stupidity and nefarious marketing. The stupidity comes from people disposing of fat by pouring it down the drain. Everyone knows you collect used cooking oil and dispose of it as solid waste. But in London, apparently our grandmothers’ traditions are too old fashioned, too environmentally sensible, for busy restaurant staffers who just really, really can’t be bothered to do the right thing. Two things England apparently doesn’t have: cold soda and grease traps.
The nefarious marketing has created a demand for toilet paper you can’t flush, i.e. wet wipes. How is this even a thing? They cost more, they’re less convenient, and they jam up the plumbing. Did Don Draper craft a poignant ad campaign that equates people’s happy childhood memories with the feeling of wiping your bum with a damp sheet of chemicals and plastic? Let’s take a lesson from the Japanese and adopt their high-tech, jet-stream, blow-dry commodes. Sanitation plus space-age design—now that’s the future!
But back to London’s fatberg infestation. April’s 10-ton behemoth wasn’t even the biggest ‘berg on record. That honor goes to the toxic 15-ton “congealed lump of lard” that blocked a 2-meter diameter sewer pipe and nearly flooded Kingston upon Thames with an unholy sludge of stink in the summer of ’13. Many others have made the news, including an 80-meter clump beneath Shepherd’s Bush Road.
The problem is that wet wipes don’t break down after the flush. As they travel through the sewers, they get snagged on joints and bricks. Layers of fat build up over time. It’s like old-timey candle dipping. With human waste.
Oddly, the only business trying to slay the greasy beast is McDonalds, which collects its used oil from its London establishments and uses it to fuel its trucks. The mayor of London has called to scale up this newfangled “biofuel” concept with the city’s buses, but the Google trail goes cold after 2013, so I don’t think it’s actually happened.
That still leaves the wet wipe half of the equation. And it’s not only sewers that are the beneficiaries of this waste. The UK’s Marine Conservation Society found 35 wet wipes for every kilometer of beach during their annual clean up in 2014. Just like with other beach trash, wildlife suffers. Birds and animals eat the wipes and don’t digest them. With their stomach full of garbage, they die of starvation.
London has suffered the brunt of the wet wipe problem, but New York City has had its trials too. And the city’s solution is litigation—ain’t America grand?—against manufacturers that label their products flushable. These “demon snowballs” are flushable in the same way “a golf ball is flushable,” according to a sanitary engineer interviewed in the New York Times. The city has spent millions of dollars to install equipment to rake out the used wipes at the sewage plant, a cost that is passed along to city residents. The city is also launching a public awareness campaign to teach people not to flush them.
Many brands readily tell consumers right on the package that the wipes are not flushable. But Cottonelle wipes made by Kimberly-Clark proudly proclaim they are flushable due to their “patented dispersible technology.” But ask any self-respecting wastewater treatment plant operator, and they’ll tell you a whole ‘nother story.
The fatberg that ate London and that tried to eat New York is s spreading to other states. A class-action lawsuit against Target, which claims its store brand wipes are septic and sewer safe, was filed in northern Ohio. Hawaii, Alaska, Wisconsin, and California have all battled the beast. The only difference in the States is that people generally don’t exacerbate the problem with pouring oil down the drain; thus the fatbergs aren’t growing beneath the feet of oblivious urban pedestrians. Instead, the wet wipes become a problem at the sewage plants, where, according to Marshfield, Wisconsin’s wastewater superintendent Sam Warp, workers need to dismantle equipment, get sewage on the floor, “then they end up laying down there and reaching up into the pump, pull the rags back out—and they don’t smell real good the rest of the day.”
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.