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The Rise of the Fatberg: a Problem of Septic Proportions All Around the World

Photo: Adrian Dennis, AFP, Getty Images
Photo: Adrian Dennis, AFP, Getty Images

It all starts with a little oil drip down the sink. One homeowner trickles their gravy down the sink, their neighbor does the same with the oil from their Thanksgiving dinner, and pretty soon a chain reaction has happened. Oil is never meant to be disposed of via the sink, and while plumbers say it can be okay in small amounts, more and more homeowners are doing it and causing a problem of septic proportions.

Every year, 1.2 trillion gallons of untreated sewage, stormwater, and industrial waste are dumped into the U.S. water and plumbing sources. While this staggering number may seem extreme, what many health experts are worried about is the fact that this is happening worldwide.

So much so that all the fat piling up in sewers is congealing into a terrible mass, which are now being dubbed “fatbergs.”

How they form is easy. These literal mountains of fat and grease congeal together in small lumps when homeowners pour a cup full of oil or bacon grease down the drain. Then they float along the sewer and pick up other little blobs of waste, and soon a massive fatberg is born. Only one-quarter of all homes in the United States have a septic system, and the rest dump waste into the public waste system. As a result, this phenomenon is more common than ever, and these fatbergs show no signs of slowing down anytime soon.

When they get big enough, the fatbergs block the sewer systems altogether until the waste is forced to spew onto the streets. That’s because these fatbergs are literally taking over sewer and septic systems. They’re wreaking havoc on indoor plumbing all over the world — cities like London, Melbourne, and Belfast have found large fatbergs underground in recent years.

For perspective, back in 2013, London sanitation workers pulled a behemoth 15-ton fatberg from the subterranean bowels of London’s Kingston neighborhood.

Not only is this situation gross, it poses quite a financial strain. According to National Geographic, in the past five years, New York City alone has dedicated $18 million to fatberg cleanup and removal. Smaller cities suffer as well; Ft. Wayne, Indiana has spends close to half a million dollars a year to cleaning grease and fat out of their slimy sewers.

Where does all this fat go when it’s collected?

Some eco-friendly cities are turning the fat into biofuels and are powering their city’s public transport. On the other hand, criminals in some cities, most notoriously New York City, have been known to collect this grease and fat and are turning it into cooking oil.To make their oil look more authentic, the criminals will break into restaurants, find their grease traps, and add the fatbergs to this base. When melted down, this “sewer oil” can fetch a higher price on the black market.

As a way to prevent the fatbergs from taking over permanently, these cities are trying innovative ways to remind homeowners to toss their oil in the trash. London, for example, has created a series of “Sewer Singers,” promotional videos that see their sewer workers dressing up as turkeys around Christmas time.

So, for now, the demise of the fatberg seems unlikely.