Fighting the fatbergs


As a number of its customers – including Thames Water and Wessex Water – work to combat the scourge of fatbergs, leading supplier of chemical dosing systems to water industry WES Ltd asks what more can be done?

In 2017 a monster was found residing in the heart of London. Weighing 130 tonnes and estimated to be 250 meters in length, a fatberg – an agglomeration of hardened fat, oil and wet-wipes – was blocking a sewer in Whitechapel and could have caused raw sewage to flood the streets had it not been discovered during a routine inspection. Removing the fatberg took Thames Water employees more than two months to complete, with the final section having to be hacked out with shovels.

The Whitechapel fatberg was not an isolated case; Thames Water estimates that is spends £1 million a month clearing blockages from its 68,000 miles of sewers.

The cause of the vast majority of these blockages is a widespread and seemingly innocuous product—wet wipes. Just a single wipe, caught on a root, can snowball over time into a fatberg. The problem is exacerbated by an ageing sewer system and is even worse in areas where large amounts of cooking oil are also poured down the drains.

The solution to this problem seems obvious; consumers must stop flushing these wipes down their toilets. Accordingly, efforts have been made to increase awareness among the general public of the problems associated with the improper disposal of wet wipes.  For its part, Thames Water has launched its Bin it – Don’t Block It campaign, while wipes trade bodies such as the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry (INDA) and EDANA have stipulated that member companies selling non-flushable wipes must display a ‘Do Not Flush’ symbol prominently on packaging.

Pilot programmes conducted by INDA together with wastewater organizations have shown that consumer awareness campaigns such as these can reduce the incorrect disposal of wipes by about 50%. This is positive but, quite literally, it only solves half of the problem.

Another obvious solution is to develop wipes that can be flushed, but who decides what constitutes a flushable wipe? A recent investigation found that all wet wipes sold as ‘flushable’ in the UK fail the water industry’s disintegration tests. In 2017, the government asked the manufacturers and water companies to agree a flushable standard, but these efforts have so far failed.

A ban on the sale of wet wipes has been mooted, but this was met with public outcry. Further, the global consumer wipes market is worth something like $11 billion a year and manufactures are unlikely to take any threat to this business lying down.

The long-term solution to the problem of fatbergs must be in increasing consumer awareness of the problem – ensuring that wipes are disposed of properly and that demand is created for truly flushable wipes – possibly coupled with the renovation, or redesign, of our aging sewers. In the meantime, the water industry continues to work hard to develop innovative solutions to clean-up the mess.