The fight against fatbergs: why education is key

Education is a key step in reducing FOG blockages and its impacts to human and environmental health, but it's only the start in the fight against fatbergs.
FOG pollution
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Written by SwiftComply UK Business Director, Laura Su, this article is part of the Spring Edition of the Institute of Water Magazine, which can be accessed here.

A vast and robust piece of infrastructure spanning thousands and thousands of kilometres, our sewer system can easily be mistaken as something quite infinite and indestructible. However, with increasing numbers of blockages, raw sewer back-ups and flooding incidents, this only confirms that educating people on the fragilities of our underground infrastructure has become a necessary task.

With public attention now caught by the devastating effects plastic pollution imposes on both our natural resources and sewer systems, customers need to be made more aware of the unsavoury realities surrounding fat, oil and grease (FOG) that are thrown down the sink.

There are a number of factors that can explain why the incorrect disposal of FOG is poised to become an issue comparable to single-use plastic pollution. But some particular aspects that should be kept in mind when trying to understand how we got here include: exponential population growth over decades, our migration to a more fat-rich diet and a societal demand for more food service establishments than ever before.

This last point is particularly critical. Commercial kitchens are responsible for the most serious consequences of letting fat, oil and grease slip into the sewers, so much so that fatbergs have a consistent history of appearing in areas with a high concentration of food businesses and urban populations. 

Education, education, education

FOG pollution can be directly linked to various threats and issues, from the contamination of natural water bodies to daily disruptions of business and road closures. Over time, this issue has worsened, as we witness the rise of the sewer monster that we know as the fatberg, forcing the UK to spend around £100 million on cleaning and clearing procedures every year. In a nutshell, this is a serious problem that should be addressed today for tomorrow’s change. 

However, convincing people that their individual actions may have huge ramifications can sound like an impossible task, especially when it comes to sewer pollution, where we can’t easily show the scale of the problem until it becomes a much bigger issue. This has been done in the past, however, and with relative success.

Take cigarette-related pollution, for example. Not too long ago, if you told a smoker that a single cigarette butt might contribute to the collapse of an entire ecosystem, chances were, this person would dismiss your claims as nonsense. Whereas today, even the most stubborn smoker will recognise that cigarettes are indeed hard to break down and simply tossing them onto the ground is a bad idea.

SwiftComply in the Institute of Water Magazine
SwiftComply in the Institute of Water Magazine

It took a newsworthy phenomenon to make people realise the devastation that used fats, oils and grease can cause. Back in 2017, when fatbergs made their big media debut with Whitechapel’s “Fatty McFatberg,” it became easier to understand why pouring FOG down the drain is wrong. It was an unfortunate opportunity for education, but an opportunity all the same.

As an industry dealing with water, a natural resource that is so critically limited, we can’t rely on time and media opportunities to raise awareness. Even though fatbergs are popping up more often than ever, far too many people and businesses are still mistreating what goes into the sewer, turning what would otherwise be regarded as small, isolated cases of pollution into massively troubling events for entire communities.

The first and foremost answer to this problem is education. Utilities recognise this and for years have worked on ways to teach the general public about the importance of taking good care of our sewers. A good example are the campaigns that educate domestic customers on better toilet behaviour, which helped people understand to only flush the 3Ps (that’s pee, paper and poo).

Educating as many people as possible is critical because a broad level of public awareness of relevant issues helps to create pressure to combat these problems. This is what is happening with single-use plastics, for instance. Items such as plastic bags and straws are being banned extensively and the public attention has turned to wet wipes, another big troublemaker when it comes to sewer pollution and fatbergs.

FOG demands a different approach

Whilst fat, oil and grease pollution is a general issue, the main polluters are those hundreds of thousands of food businesses across the country who are freely allowing the flow of FOG into the sewers on a daily basis. The main issue here lies with a lack of education on proper FOG management and their responsibilities as food service establishments. We need to make food businesses fully aware firstly of why, and secondly of how, FOG should be properly stored and collected.

So how can we do that? If we take Dublin’s programme as an example, the ideal scenario would combine specific legislation, educational efforts and technology as innovation. After educating and inspecting every food business in operation, the Irish capital saw the number of commercial kitchens using grease trapping equipment soar from 14% to over 80% in just six years, helping the city achieve an impressive 95% reduction in FOG related blockages.

A large proportion of the programme was centred around face-to-face educational campaigning, putting the polluter central to the project. Representatives from the water company visited food businesses to teach them about FOG pollution, the legislation regarding it and what they should do to prevent it, using the ‘carrot vs. stick’ approach which tends to bring businesses on board more easily. If food businesses understand clearly the consequences of their actions and the benefits of good FOG management, they are more likely to act positively. 

In conclusion, education is a key and crucial step in reducing FOG blockages and its impacts to human and environmental health, but this is only the start in what is a long-term fight against the fatbergs.

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