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Fighting the Fatbergs

20 February 2018

Anyone who saw the stories about the ‘monster fatberg’ in Whitechapel at the end of last year won’t soon forget about it.

Weighing an estimated 130 tonnes and stretching further than the length of Tower Bridge, the behemoth lump (due to be displayed at the Museum of London later this year) took a team of eight workers over three weeks to clear.

It was precisely this lump that sprang into my mind a couple of weeks ago, when my own plumbing backed up. Admittedly, the sink had been draining more slowly for some time, but that didn’t make it any less alarming on the evening when the water from the washing machine decided that its most convenient exit from the system was via the kitchen sink.

Having checked the washing machine filter and inspected the U-bends, we eventually called for professional help. Thankfully our dilemma was caused by poorly installed pipes and several years of build-up (letting me figuratively wash my hands of responsibility as we only moved in last year). However, it certainly had got me thinking of all the things we absent-mindedly tip down the sink or flush down the toilet without considering the possible consequences. After all, the infamous fatbergs of London – described as “repulsively human” – are caused simply by the build up of mis-handled kitchen and bathroom debris.

Having spoken to an engineer from MTS Cleansing Services, about some of the common culprits of drain blockage, author Mike James learned the main culprits are:

Kitchen Culprits

No surprises; Oil fat and grease are the main culprits behind domestic blockages. It might look like a liquid when you pour it away, but fatty deposits quickly solidify into a sticky clump inside your pipes. Even households that are conscientious about fats don’t always consider that cooking oil, salad dressings, cream, milk and ice cream can all have the same effect.

Pasta, rice and potatoes are another big problem. These starchy foods tend to expand in water, before coagulating into a mushy goo. Even allowing small scraps to go down the sink can build up into a pretty unpleasant blockage.

Apparently, coffee granules are also a major offender when it comes to backed-up pipes. Instead of tipping the clump at the bottom of your cafetiere down the drain, next time be sure to scoop it into the bin or, even better, add it to a compost heap.

Bathroom Blockages

Bathroom products are more commonly the source of drainage issues, either within the home or further along the sewer network.

If you followed the ‘fatberg’ story, you’ll already know that wet wipes cause problems for plumbers all over the country. Just because they’re moist and you use them in the bathroom, it doesn’t mean that you can dispose of them in the toilet! They don’t disintegrate and will only add to the bulk of solid sewage.

The same goes for similar cleansing products like make-up wipes, cotton balls and cotton buds. These are all designed to absorb moisture, meaning that they’re likely to swell up and get stuck.

Feminine hygiene products are another big problem. While most women know they need to put a pad in the bin, around 40 per cent think it’s okay to flush their tampons, which simply isn't the case. Like condoms (another culprit of drain blockages), tampons won’t degrade in water, so even if you have a private septic tank, you need to dispose of them in the bin.

The verdict is somewhat mixed on whether it’s appropriate to flush pet waste down the toilet, due to the harmful bacteria it potentially contains being spread around the water system and infecting marine life. Even if this is not a problem from a blockage perspective, under no circumstances should you try to flush cat litter, as it swells in water and will absolutely clog up the drainage network.

Basically, think twice before tipping anything down a drain or toilet. Even if it’s liquid, or its packaging claims that the product is flushable, it doesn’t mean that the sewer network can handle it. You might think that once your waste is off of your property it’s no longer your problem, but it actually results in everyone paying more to their local water supplier. Ignoring the issue not only costs you money, but makes it more likely that your sewage will one day come back up your drains to haunt you!

Mike James is a UK based writer and contributor to Cleaning Matters. Mike spoke to MTS Cleansing for some of the information about the Fatberg issues concerning London's sewers for this piece.