Beat the blockages: how to cook responsibly during quarantine

Working from home. Covid-19, Quarantine
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The Covid-19 pandemic is undeniably having profound and far-reaching impacts across the world, especially now that entire societies are under quarantine. But one of its lesser-known effects is that of sewer system blockages caused by toilet and kitchen sink misuse.

Temporarily empty shelves in the toilet paper aisle have led to an increase in people using unflushable alternatives, with water companies urging their customers to bin, not flush, any toilet paper substitutes to avoid blockages.

Although unflushables are a problem in itself, they become a much more serious issue if combined with fats, oils and grease (FOG) that are poured down the kitchen sink. In the sewers, FOG will glue items like wet wipes together and form hard masses we now know as fatbergs.

At SwiftComply, our usual focus is helping those in the food and hospitality industry to tackle FOG, but at times such as these, it’s important to reach out to the wider community. Now that many of us are in quarantine for the foreseeable future, we will undoubtedly be spending more time in our kitchens. Given that we all have a shared responsibility to take care of our sewers, we want to help you think before you sink.

FOG: the facts

The best way to stop FOG causing problems in our drains is to stop it at its source. But what is FOG and where does it come from? FOG has a number of sources, including:

  • Fat from cooked meats
  • Dairy products 
  • Cooking oil
  • Baked goods
  • Butter, margarine and lard
  • Gravy
  • Sauces
  • Salad dressings

When it enters the sewer system, FOG can harden, restricting the flow of wastewater in the pipes, and combine with non-biodegradable items such as wipes and kitchen towels. As mentioned above, the result is a fatberg, the most famous example of which being Fatty McFatberg, which was removed from the sewers of Whitechapel. This ‘King of Fatbergs’ weighed 130 tonnes and was more than 250m long.

Fatty McFatberg
The monstrous Whitechapel fatberg was made up of FOG, nappies, wet wipes and sanitary products, and took Thames Water nine weeks to clear.

FOG pollution often results in sewer overflows, causing wastewater to back-up and invade our streets and rivers, or businesses and homes. In fact, more than 3,000 homes in the UK are flooded yearly because of blockages caused by FOG.

Water utilities currently spend a whopping £90 million every year on clearing FOG blockages across the UK, requiring money that could be used elsewhere or passed back to us in savings. Because FOG affects the performance of sewer systems and wastewater treatment works, this impacts water utility companies and their maintenance costs, and increases prices for customers.

This serious issue is preventable if we learn how to dispose of FOG correctly in our kitchens. If we change our habits, not only are we less likely to have to deal with drainage issues at home, but we can become more environmentally friendly and help out our community.

Top tips to fight the fatbergs

In the past, many households were taught to wash fat or oil down the sink with hot water and washing up liquid. This is a damaging habit that needs to be broken: once it cools, FOG will re-solidify and clog up pipes, resulting in damage and repair bills. 

Pipe with FOG
The ugly truth: a pipe clogged by fats, oils and grease.

So, how can you join us on our mission to fight the fatbergs? These are some of our easy-to-follow tips to keep your drains and sewers flowing freely at a time when they’re already under strain.

  • Before washing up plates, pans and kitchen utensils, scrape leftover food into the bin and wipe off any greasy residue with a paper towel.
  • Allow cooking fat to cool down and solidify before putting it into a container (eg. jam jars, tubs) and into the bin.
  • Reuse large amounts of cooking oil by filtering it before storing.
  • Use sink strainers to catch any food scraps and empty them into the bin – crumbs and scraps can accumulate in drains and add to fat deposits.
  • If you have a garden, compost your food waste by collecting uncooked fruit and vegetable peelings.
  • Use residual lard or suet (but not fat from cooked meat) and mix in seeds, nuts, dried fruit and other kitchen scraps, before forming into balls to place in your garden for birds and wildlife to eat.
Bird fat ball
A tasty snack worth tweeting about!

If we can follow these simple tips, and prevent the by-products of our quarantine cooking from going down the drain, our sewers could emerge from this crisis clearer than ever.

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