While the issue of fatberg-related sewer blockages is often viewed as an engineering challenge, for research to be channelled most effectively, to help identify causes and solutions, it should also be seen as a social problem. This is the view of Nicky Cunningham from the University of Exeter’s Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste, who led research into the contents of a 64-metre monster fatberg, in Sidmouth, Devon, UK.
Nicky was part of a scientific research team asked to carry out an extensive ‘autopsy’ of the fatberg by South West Water in 2019. Speaking on a research-focused panel at the 2021 European FOG Summit in Brighton, UK, on 14 October, she told delegates: “What I would like to see is more research around the socioeconomic risk factors. There are going to be engineering factors, there are undoubtedly aspects of the sewer network that make the sewer vulnerable; and there will be meteorological and hydrological factors as well. But I think until we come up with some kind of risk analysis that overlays all of those things, we are only ever going to be playing catch up. We really want to get into the area of predict and prevent.”
Nicky said understanding the financial and carbon costs of dealing with fatbergs versus the costs of business-as-usual approaches, should also be key to company research.
“We might be costing what it takes to send the teams down there and jet-wash this stuff out, but are we costing the PR effort, the time of the chief executive and senior management in the water companies, the regulatory penalties that occur? I don’t think we are. And when you have added up all of those things, and then started looking at the costs and benefits of circular model, what we find is that, actually, it would pay to do something different.”
Nicky was joined on the panel by Andrew Blake, South West Water and Prof. Raffealla Villa, De Montfort University. Moderator was Dr. Tom Curran, University of College Dublin.
Highlighting South West Water and University of Exeter’s joint Sidmouth project, Andrew said such research enables water companies to create more targeted customer engagement programmes: “It was an amazing opportunity to actually analyse what was contained within the fatberg. It gave us an understanding of the makeup of the fatberg. You can’t really address the problem until you know who’s contributing towards it. That’s why research is really critical.”
Andrew believes further research into customer behaviour should be undertaken by water companies: “A lot of the problems, certainly at domestic level, are inherited. As you grow up, you learn some things from parents, like flushing fat down the sink. Trying to break that cycle, that’s the challenge. It’s the same with wipes and all these unflushable things. So, the more research we can do to understand that problem, the better we are.”
To get the most out of research findings, Andrew said studies should be used to create a business case to secure funding for water company campaigns and initiatives: “As well as trying to produce these pieces of research, we should be looking at the other end and asking how are we going to use the information? Take Sidmouth, for example – we analysed what we found, and designed a programme around that. Because of the elderly population in Sidmouth, some customers might not necessarily be used to social media, so there’s no point in running a digital campaign for that location. If you had a similar situation at the university, absolutely run a digital campaign, and you’ll see a return on investment. For me, it’s about providing that business case.”
Raffealla agreed: “It’s a two-way problem, because we need to learn to understand what the company wants and they need to start listening to a bit more science. And what is a research problem to me needs to be transferred and translated into business case.”
In terms of connecting water companies and researchers, to enable research projects to move forward, Nicky said: “I’m seeing pockets of really good practice around the country but I think what’s missing is that join-up. So perhaps it could be some sort of joint water company approach, which takes the best of what’s happening already, and then really builds on it as part of an integrated programme of research, where we fill in the gaps.
“There are many other players but I think if the water industry, as the custodians of those sewers, had a really clear view of what the risk was and where it was coming from, we’d have a much more compelling case to go forward and ask for things like regulatory change.”
Sidmouth Fatberg Facts:
University of Exeter scientists were given four 10kg Sidmouth fatberg samples, as workers were removing it from the sewer. They found:
- Most of the fat appeared to be domestic, roast dinner-type fat, rather than from food establishments
- The highest number of unflushable items found were incontinence products, along with sanitary products, wipes and even false teeth
- Reassuringly, the fatberg contained no unexpected chemicals or pollutants