Discussing how to eradicate fatbergs

Specialists from the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom discuss what their cities are doing to eradicate fatbergs.
How to eradicate fatbergs
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Cities around the world had been trying to eradicate fatbergs long before the term fatberg was coined: by the time the theme captured media attention and became an urgency in the eyes of the public, it had been urgent for water authorities for years. So it’s not surprising that finding common ground in this area is relatively easy, even when we talk about municipalities that are as different as they are distant from each other.

At the European FOG Summit 2020, held in Amsterdam in March, panellists from the United States, Europe and the United Kingdom sat together to discuss the particularities of the way their cities act to suppress the growing threat of the fatbergs. In the end, despite the countless differences among them, common ground was found: the notion that the answer lies in a combined approach of education, regulation and innovation.

The best approach to tackle FOG

During the event, the audience was polled on which approaches represent the ultimate answer to eradicate fatbergs and prevent FOG-related challenges. 36% of the voters preferred technology, with regulation receiving 33% of the votes and education 31%. Session leader Tom Freyberg, content director at Aquatech, then asked the panellists to discuss each solution.

‘Education is first and foremost’

Having been free from fatbergs or other big sewer problems for years, the city of Carmel, in Indiana, US, bases its fat, oil and grease programme on the notion that information is a privilege. That’s why Teresa Lewis, manager of the FOG programme at the City of Carmel Utilities, believes that “Education is first and foremost.”

Representatives from the authority visit establishments and residences equipped with brochures that explain what FOG is and how it should be dealt with. They also hand out food scrapers so people can clean out pots and pans into the bin, which converts information into practice.

“The people that we’re dealing with in these restaurants (…), that’s not their job, their job is to run their businesses. They have no idea what FOG is, what it’s about, what problems it causes in the sewer. As long as their drains flow and water comes out of their tap, they’re not concerned. So I think we have to educate first and then they will comply.”

Teresa Lewis, City of Carmel Utilities

Wastewater source control lead at Irish Water, Enda Collins, pointed out that Dublin’s FOG programme — which coincides with the start of SwiftComply’s FOG management platform — leans greatly on education. According to Collins, restaurant inspections are not meant to be only an audit tool: managers and kitchen staff need to be informed about FOG pollution so they can act with the conscience of why prevention is so important.

‘Regulation is the most important’

Sitting at the other end of the spectrum, regulation comes into play when education alone doesn’t do the job. Stephen Edwards, network protection and enforcement officer at Southern Water, talked about how an experiment conducted in the UK a couple of years ago made it clear that sometimes, just telling people what is right or wrong is not enough.

“We went to 100 premises on a proactive visit and 100 premises on a reactive visit,” he told the audience. “The proactive meant that there was no reason to go there apart from just to educate the FSE [food service establishment]; there were no blockages. On the reactive visits, there was an issue there where we would have taken some action as a water company or a regulator.”

On a second visit, some of the proactively-seen businesses had taken measures to mitigate the risks, but not all of them, and even among the ones who had done something, the equipment installed was often inadequate. “They put it in just to satisfy us,” Edwards said. The results were much more positive in the other group since they had to act upon an offence that was committed and therefore, knew they would be in trouble if caught again.

‘Technology is vital’

Technology is what connects the dots and puts education and regulation in the same boat. Using the panel’s room as an example of how it can be used effectively, Dr. Tom Curran, a lecturer at UCD School of Biosystems & Food Engineering, reminded the audience that they had been using their own smartphones to weigh in on debates during the FOG Summit.

Technology at the European FOG Summit
Technology at the European FOG Summit

“The smartphone actually can be very useful in the fight against fatbergs as well, even to get the message out there through social media,” he elaborated.

Other examples are grease traps, which are evolving. There are models, Curran said, equipped with sensors and interceptors that tell when there is FOG in the system. Those can be connected to a smartphone or directly to waste contractors so they can come and take the material away.

“And then we have platforms like SwiftComply which can analyse the risk-based approach to say where you need to send the inspectors,” he followed up. “Technology is vital, it’s an important part of that whole jigsaw.”

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