Unveiling the Truth About Fatbergs: Protecting Our Sewers and Environment

Fatbergs, substantial and troublesome blockages within urban sewer systems, are a stark reality beneath our city streets. These formidable masses consist of fats, oils, grease (collectively known as FOG), and a wide range of improperly disposed items, presenting a considerable challenge to the functionality of sewer infrastructure and environmental health. This document aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of the origins of fatbergs, outline strategies for their prevention, and assess their environmental consequences, with a view to fostering a more informed approach to mitigating their impact.



What Causes Fatbergs?

In 1989, the privatisation of Thames Water by the Tory government aimed not only at raising capital funding but also at enhancing the efficiency of the water authority to address the challenges posed by London's burgeoning population, which had ballooned from 1 million to 8.6 million residents. This move towards privatisation and the ensuing efforts to streamline operations were responses to dramatically changing lifestyles and the population explosion. However, these reforms inadvertently played a role in the genesis of fatbergs, a dire consequence of our evolving living habits and improper disposal practices. As individuals increasingly poured fats, oils, grease (FOG), and various non-flushable items down sinks and toilets, these substances began to amalgamate into large, greasy masses. These masses cling to the sewer walls, culminating in substantial blockages.


Fatbergs, as they are known, pose significant risks, leading to hazardous flooding and severe environmental pollution, threatening aquatic ecosystems and public health. Historically, specialised teams, referred to as Sewer Flushers, would mitigate these risks by clearing the sewers of blockages during nighttime operations. Their dwindling presence over the years has allowed the sewer system's infrastructure to be overwhelmed by cooking fat and other refuse, exacerbating the formation of fatbergs. This neglect has led to the creation of dangerous gas pockets and contributed to environmental disasters, including floods, underscoring the unintended negative impacts of privatisation and lifestyle changes on urban water management systems.


How to Prevent Fatbergs from a Household point of view

Preventing fatbergs requires a collective effort and a few simple practices:

Dispose of FOG Properly: Avoid pouring fats, oils, and grease down sinks. Instead, collect them in a sealable container and dispose of them in the food waste bin, not the recycling bin, which is entering a landfill.

Mind Your Flushing Habits: Stick to the "3 Ps" rule – flush only pee, poo, and toilet paper. Refrain from flushing wet wipes, sanitary products, and other non-biodegradable items.


To aid in preventing blockages and addressing the escalating issue of fatbergs, it is advisable for commercial entities to consider the installation of grease traps. These devices play a crucial role in intercepting fats, oils, and grease (FOG) prior to their entry into the sewer system, significantly contributing to the reduction of fatberg formation and promoting a healthier sewer system infrastructure.


How to Prevent Fatbergs in a Sewer

To prevent the formation of fatbergs and enhance the management of sewer systems, several proactive steps can be implemented. First, reinstating sewer flushers to carry out detailed inspections of the sewerage system from within remains a vital approach. These professionals can identify and address blockages that contribute to fatberg formation. Additionally, employing modern technology, such as CCTV monitoring systems, in identified troublesome areas allows for continuous surveillance and early detection of potential blockages.


In line with technological advancements and the need for efficient and safe sewer maintenance, companies like Hydro-Cleansing Ltd have invested in cutting-edge solutions. They've acquired one of the world's largest vacuum tankers, known as the "Terminator," which is specifically designed for the removal of vast amounts of cooking fat. Equipped with jetting equipment, this tanker reduces the necessity for manual entry, making the inspection process safer and more efficient. Mechanical machines attached to the tanker can then clean, remove, and dispose of the cooking fats at treatment facilities. Remarkably, these fats are not merely disposed of but are transformed into biofuel, presenting an eco-friendly solution to the problem. This comprehensive approach not only addresses the immediate issue of fatbergs but also contributes to the sustainability of urban sewer systems.


The Whitechapel Monster: A Case Study

In the early part of 2018, Hydro-Cleansing undertook a significant project in collaboration with a major blue-chip construction company. The task was to integrate a colossal new construction project into the existing infrastructure of Thames Water. This endeavor was particularly challenging due to the massive volume and intensity of cooking fat clogging the sewer system. The situation was dire, with the built-up fat having encased 95% of a sewer constructed in 1865, rendering it nearly impassable for sewage flow. The accumulation of cooking fat not only obstructed the sewer but also created a hazardous environment filled with gas and other dangers, making it a difficult area to work in.




To tackle this formidable obstacle, Hydro-Cleansing deployed their large Terminator, a state-of-the-art vacuum tanker equipped with jetting equipment specifically designed for such critical tasks. The Terminator's capability to emulsify and remove the accumulated cooking fat was crucial. This operation was performed remotely from the surface, negating the need for manual entry into the hazardous environment of the sewer for this part of the project. Meanwhile, other contractors positioned further along the sewer line had to resort to entering the sewer and manually excavating the blockages, a more labor-intensive and riskier approach due to the absence of advanced equipment like the Terminator in their arsenal.



This project highlighted the indispensable role of innovative technology and specialised equipment in managing and mitigating the challenges posed by urban infrastructure maintenance, especially in dealing with environmental hazards and ensuring the seamless functioning of critical utilities.


Fun Facts About the Whitechapel Fatberg

  • Measuring longer than London Tower Bridge (240m)
  • Weighing more than three humpback whales
  • Times longer than the infamous Sidmouth fatberg


Watch the video here to learn more about our battle against fatbergs and our commitment to environmental stewardship. 



Disposal and Recycling 

At Hydro Cleansing, HCL is committed to the responsible disposal and recycling of fatberg waste, underscoring their dedication to fostering a cleaner and healthier environment. This commitment involves a strategic approach to waste management, focusing on circular recycling deployment. By converting the extracted fatberg material into usable products such as biofuel, HCL not only addresses the immediate issue of sewer blockages but also contributes to the sustainability of resources. This process reflects a broader environmental ethic, emphasising the importance of repurposing waste materials in a manner that benefits the ecosystem and supports the principles of the circular economy.


The Growing Fatberg Crisis

The global proliferation of fatbergs in major cities like London, New York, Sydney, and San Francisco poses a significant challenge to urban sewer systems. These monstrous accumulations of fats, oils, grease (FOG), and non-biodegradable waste not only obstruct sewage flow but also necessitate costly cleanup operations. A study by Thames Water underscores the financial toll of fatbergs on the UK, with millions of pounds spent annually on removal efforts. This situation highlights the critical need for enhanced public awareness and substantial investments in sewer infrastructure to mitigate waste and prevent future blockages. 


Further investigation by Thames Water suggests a missed opportunity in public sector investment towards fatberg prevention. The focus, it seems, has been on financial dividends rather than allocating sufficient funds to maintain and clean sewers effectively. Had there been a concerted effort to invest in preventative measures, including the deployment of sewer flushers and other maintenance activities, the formidable challenge posed by fatbergs could have been significantly mitigated. This revelation points to the necessity of prioritising infrastructure over short-term financial gains, emphasising the importance of a strategic approach to sewer management and fatberg prevention to safeguard urban waterways and reduce environmental impact.


Environmental Impact 

Fatbergs present a multifaceted threat beyond merely clogging sewer systems; they are also significant environmental hazards. As these massive lumps of congealed fats, oils, grease, and non-biodegradable waste decompose, they emit harmful gases and leach toxic chemicals into the soil and waterways. This process poses a danger to local ecosystems, affecting both flora and fauna. Additionally, the contamination of water sources can have dire consequences for public health, potentially leading to waterborne diseases and other health issues. The environmental impact of fatbergs underscores the urgency of addressing waste disposal habits and improving sewage management to protect ecosystems and ensure community health and safety.


Public Awareness Campaigns 

As the global fight against fatbergs intensifies, the role of public education and systemic infrastructure management becomes increasingly crucial. Governments and environmental organisations are stepping up efforts to educate both the public and specific sectors, such as SME food manufacturers and cosmetic companies, on the importance of responsible waste disposal. These initiatives aim not only to prevent the formation of fatbergs but also to highlight the potential of converting waste into energy, thus promoting environmental sustainability.



Key to these efforts is the concept of circular sustainability, which involves repurposing waste materials, such as those found in fatbergs, for energy generation. Anaerobic digestion (AD) plants represent a viable solution, transforming waste into biogas that can power turbines to generate electricity. This approach not only addresses the immediate issue of sewer blockages but also contributes to the broader goal of creating renewable energy sources.

However, achieving this requires significant shifts in how water authorities manage and invest in sewer infrastructure. The continuous diversion of funds towards dividends rather than reinvestment in the system has been a critical point of contention. More capital investment is essential for upgrading the ageing sewer networks, especially in cities like London and San Francisco, where the infrastructure struggles to cope with the modern demands of diverse food cultures and increased waste.

Bringing back essential maintenance practices, such as employing sewer flushers and cleaning crews, is imperative to tackle the root cause of blockages. These measures, combined with innovative waste-to-energy projects, can foster a more sustainable urban environment. The challenge lies in balancing financial returns with environmental responsibilities, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to achieve both a clean environment and economic benefits.

Understanding and implementing circular sustainability practices can lead to significant environmental improvements. It necessitates a paradigm shift in how waste is perceived and managed, turning a problem into a resource that benefits the community, the environment, and the economy alike. Only through collaborative efforts, substantial investment, and a commitment to sustainable practices can the persistent issue of fatbergs be effectively addressed, ensuring the longevity and efficiency of urban sewer systems.

Join Us In The Fight Against Fatbergs

Contact Hydro Cleansing today for expert cleaning and maintenance services. Let's protect our sewers and preserve the integrity of our environment together.