Fatbergs: Threatening to Be Another NYC Attraction

Fatbergs are the perfect name to convey the huge collections of waste which congeal into destructive globs that wreak havoc on our sewer systems. We are talking about massive levels of destruction here. In the UK in 2017, a 143-ton fatberg stretched 820 feet in the sewers of East London. Dubbed the “Whitechapel fatberg” because of its location in the city, it took Thames Water employees three weeks to “liquefy and remove the fatberg” and hundreds of thousands of pounds (£) to finance this excavation.

“This fatberg is up there with the biggest we’ve ever seen,” explained Matt Rimmer, the head of the waste network for Thames Water. “It’s a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove it is hard. It’s basically like trying to break up concrete. It’s frustrating as these situations are totally avoidable and caused by fat, oil, and grease being washed down sinks and wipes flushed down the loo.” 

This fatberg, which became famous for its sheer size and costly effects, has a very small section of it presented on display in the Museum of London as a warning to create awareness for the dangers of fatbergs in the future. 

London is not the only place affected by the incorrect disposal methods rampant in our kitchens and bathrooms: a town on the English coastline; the sewers of Queensland in Australia; Charleston, South Carolina; Singapore. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (I couldn’t resist). There are more and more sewer blockages all over the world. It is an expensive war against the fatbergs with millions of dollars being spent in each affected city to prevent and clean up the sewer monsters raging below.

New York City has started its own campaign against fatbergs. You may have noticed advertisements around the city on bus stops and in subway stations. This is because with a population of 8.6 million people and 65 million tourists visiting each year…NYC has a sewage problem. When a sewage system in this city backs up, it results in clogs in your home, overflows into the streets, and run-off into the Hudson River.

If you want to see exactly what happens to a fatberg, what it looks like, and how some organizations are turning fatbergs into biofuel, check out this video from The National by the CBC. But I am warning you, it is not for the faint of heart or those who have just eaten something…I’m serious.


Illustration by Stephanie Birdsong via Atlas Obscura 

The problem is complex, but the solution can be simple. Here’s what you can do to help: 

The word fatberg originated in the 21st-century and is used to describe “a very large mass of solid waste in a sewerage system, consisting especially of congealed fat and personal hygiene products that have been flushed down toilets”. The main components are FOG – fat, oil, and grease – that then form a mass that catches anything that is flushed down the toilet or the sink get (think condoms, floss, baby wipes, coins, kitchen scrubbers, rags, cigarette packs, diapers, feminine hygiene products, paper towels). So, follow these quick steps to do your part in protecting our sewer systems:

  1. The most important thing you can do is to research what you can and cannot flush down the sink or toilet, and then follow those rules! Here is a short list of things you definitely should not flush down the toilet and it is of the utmost importance to not throw in the sink any fats, oil, or grease. Check out this article to find out easy ways to properly dispose of those pesky, oily liquids instead.
  2. The second thing of note is to never – EVER – flush wet wipes down the toilet. Some packages may even say ‘flushable’ on the packaging but sewer system engineers have confirmed that wet wipes contribute massively to the proliferation of fatbergs.
  3. Print out this flyer and hang it up in your home, dorm, or office to help educate your family, friends, and coworkers on the importance of waste management in the bathroom. You can even have up to 50 flyers mailed to your office by making a request here. Make sure that each bathroom has a trashcan that is regularly changed so people are not tempted to flush things simply because it is easier.
  4. Print out flyers like this to hang in the kitchen, the office cooking space, the dorm kitchen, or your home to prevent the mishandling of FOG that began this whole problem in the first place.
  5. Finally, SPREAD THE WORD! People cannot fix what they are not aware of! When you see an advertisement in the subway, consider posting it on an Instagram story or sharing this article on social media or by word-of-mouth! And when you are cooking for your family and friends, talk about why you’re using a paper towel to clean off your greasy pan or pouring your grease into a non-recyclable bottle.

All Illustrations are by Stephanie Birdsong via Atlas Obscura 

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!