Just a few feet under our streets, a congealed mass is growing that threatens to burst out and cause chaos.
“Fatbergs”—icebergs of the sewer system—are made up of solidified oil, human waste and rubbish. They present an immediate danger to those living directly above them.
Heavy rain can mean sewers can’t pump water quick enough, so raw sewage could spill onto the streets above.
The Museum of London is currently displaying one as a way of raising “questions about how we live today”.
Like everything around us, Fatbergs are a product of the society we live in. That society treats the waste that we produce as an afterthought.
Products are designed to be disposable rather than reusable because it’s more profitable.
The privatisation of public services, corporate disregard for public health and ageing infrastructure are also to blame for this bizarre new phenomenon.
The bosses’ solution is to send workers down the sewer to destroy the fatbergs manually with picks and shovels.
September last year saw the discovery of the “monster” Whitechapel fatberg in east London—longer than Tower Bridge and weighing more than 130 tons.
And they’re growing—an even larger beast was discovered in south London in April of this year.
The immediate responsibility for the rise of the fatbergs lies with the water companies who own the sewers.
Now even those usually sympathetic to privatisation wonder how wise this is.
Bosses’ newspaper the Financial Times said the conduct of Thames Water “raises questions as to whether England’s unusual decision to allow private players to run the public water system for profit is working”.
The industry body for the water industry, WaterUK, blames “92 percent of blockages” on a common household item—wet wipes.
WaterUK is keen to say that it happens simply because of incorrect waste disposal—their advice is “bin it, don’t flush it”.
That puts the blame on ordinary people rather than on a society which is incapable of disposing of waste in an efficient and environmentally-friendly manner.
The problem of how to dispose of waste is as fundamental as how houses are built, or how school operate.
Fatbergs are a particularly grotesque example of how capitalism is incapable of planning for the consequences of individual capitalists’ constant drive for profits.
They exist partly because a vital public service—waste disposal—has been deregulated and auctioned off.
The emergence of fatbergs is one product of a society that stinks to high heaven.
Privatisation is to blame for the state of the sewer system
Britain’s waste water systems were sold off to companies in 1989, as part of the Tories’ drive to move assets from public to private ownership.
Thames Water supplies a third of the water and sewage systems in England, including to London and south east England.
But its record is just one example of why such important services shouldn’t be just sold off to the lowest bidder.
In March 2017 Thames Water was fined a record £20.3 million for allowing 4.2 billion litres of sewage to flow into rivers, including the Thames. Judge Francis Sheridan, who convicted Thames Water of the pollution, called it “borderline deliberate”.
The company also paid no corporation tax from 2011 to 2015 yet handed out over £1 billion in dividends from 2006 to 2015.
How do you kill a fatberg?
One way of disposing of fatbergs is by converting them into biodiesel, otherwise known as “green fuel”.
Specialist energy company Argent Fuel takes the fatbergs from water companies and refines them.
This happens by melting the fatbergs, pumping them through filters and cleaning out debris.
Up to 40 percent of the fatberg becomes biodiesel.
The biodiesel is used in buses and trucks, and its 80 percent better for the environment than regular fuel.
Another pioneering “fats to fuel” scheme by Yorkshire Water gives buckets to households to collect their waste oil.
And it’s made a huge difference—only one blockage was recorded in the two years since the scheme was rolled out.
So far it only operates in a small area—but it shows the potential for tackling fatbergs.
One job the robots can take
Destroying the fatbergs is left to teams of “flushers” who descend into the sewer and chip away at them with picks and shovels.
Often they work at night and are at risk of exposure to sewage.
The most dangerous elements of the job could be done by machines.
Thames Water, declared a “£650 million underlying operating profit” in 2017.
It should invest money into developing technology that could do the filthiest and most hazardous tasks.
Bosses are to blame for bergs
Flushed wet wipes cling to the sides of sewers and their fibres pick up passing oil.
They’re made from plastic, wood pulp and woven fabric and are often misleadingly marketed as “flushable”. But many don’t degrade after being flushed down the toilets.
It’s a growing industry, and bosses are keen to market new products, which has led to increasing amounts of wipes in our sewers.
Although wet wipes are waste material, they don’t have to be wasted.
Technology already exists to turn fatbergs into fuel that can be used in ordinary cars.
Update the sewer system
Effective water systems that prevent contamination are one of the most important aspects of public health.
Much of Britain’s sewer network was built 200 years ago and was technically innovative at the time.
Now they are creaking under the weight of centuries of use. The cities they serve now are much larger than the ones they were built for.
But instead of being maintained as a public asset to the highest standards possible, they’ve been sold off piecemeal.