Water Efficiency

140 Tons of Fat

London's stomach-turning sewer blockage

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A colossal beast has overtaken the city of London, threatening its infrastructure and horrifying inhabitants. It’s a sinister, smelly beast of a sewer blockage lurking beneath city streets.

The Whitechapel fatburg, as the clog is called, is a concrete-like formation of fat, intermingled with disposable wipes, diapers, condoms, and feminine products that takes up a sixth of a mile of the sewer system below London’s Whitechapel Road. It weighs an estimated 140 tons and is 10 times the size of the giant fatburg found in South London in 2013.

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Thames Water, the city’s utility, discovered the massive blockage during a routine inspection last week. Using high-powered hoses and hand tools, an eight-person crew is currently working seven days a week to clear the clog by breaking up and transporting its putrid matter off site. According to NPR, the team is progressing at a rate of 20-30 tons a day.

“It’s a total monster, and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it’s set hard,” said Matt Rimmer, head of waste networks for Thames Water. As we’ve reported previously, disposable wipes are a costly nuisance for sewer systems around the world. Rimmer explains that blockages caused by disposable wipes and fat occur frequently in London—at a rate of about eight a week. The organization spends about $1.3 million each month to remove them.

Many major cities experience fatburgs—New York City has reportedly spent millions of dollars to keep sewers clear of them. But the New York Times reports that London’s system is particularly challenging since the 1,100-mile sewer network was built in the 19th century to serve only four million people. Today it serves more than twice that number. London officials explain that work is underway on a super-sewer.

In the meantime, technologies are also being developed to filter out and harness the energy in waste toilet paper. Scientists at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development of Utrecht University published a study last week in Energy Technology outlining a system design for converting waste toilet paper, a rich source of carbon, into electricity. While the technology is nascent, it’s comforting to know that someday there may be a power-generating purpose for the stuff…as well as a way to avoid beastly sewer blockages.

How do clogs affect your organization? What solutions have you found most effective?WE_bug_web

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  1. It happening all through out the USA and we call it FOG – fats, oils and grease. Now we call it FOWG – fats, oils, wipes and grease. Please don’t pour or flush it down!

    1. It’s my understanding that even “flushable” wipes should not be sent down the toilet since they cannot be easily broken down. They can not only cause blockages, but significant damage to pumps.

  2. I am rarely in the mood to call for more govt regulations, but those wipes cost ratepayers millions every year. The manufacturers need to re-engineer them to be more degradable or take them off the market. Sadly, we cannot count on the public to not flush them.

  3. Kind of like when waterless urinals 1st were used and corroded the copper piping nearest the urinals. Every now and then we need to be looking beyond what would seem to be a simple solution.
    Could 1/8 GPF urinals be a problem in existing buildings, too? Maybe even 1.0 GPF toilets?

    1. Low flush toilets/ urinals/ garbage disposalls/ flushable tissues/ FOG (fats, oils, greases) are causing major problems in drains, septic tanks, WWTPs nation wide. All of these materials require large amounts of free atmospheric oxygen (>50,000 ppm) to be mineralized. That cannot occur in an anaerobic environment such as sewerage pipes, septic tanks, cess pools and WWTPs. Even the best aerated systems cannot provide more than 5 ppm free oxygen.
      The $multi-billion Sewage Empire is whipping a “Dead Horse”!

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