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Word of the week: fatberg

Fatberg is rather like chairdrobe, self-explanatory when you break it down. A chairdrobe is a chair that acts like a wardrobe, and a fatberg is like an iceberg, but made of fat. In fact, as we have learnt through various recent news stories it’s more than that; it’s a mass of fat combined with wet wipes, “sanitary products” and all manner of other things that are flushed away into the sewers. We Londoners have combined to create the largest fatberg ever recorded, and it’s currently being hosed out of a sewer in Whitechapel: 130 tonnes in weight and the length of two football pitches. As a piece on the Time Out website puts it: “The 130-tonne mass of cooking fat, oil, wet wipes, nappies and other crap had set as hard as concrete and stretched for 250m beneath the streets of east London”. If you’re squeamish you might not want to click on the link to that piece, which appears in the next sentence. It contains a truly disgusting picture of a fatberg, but click here if you’re ready to see it.

As a family we have contributed rather less to this fatberg than we might have. We are very careful about pouring cooking fat and grease down the sink. There was a storyline in the BBC1 drama “Hustle”, many years ago, about cooking fat choking up London’s sewers, and we became even more careful about our washing up after watching that episode. Our fridge is often home to pots of chicken fat and grease from roast lunches, cooling and hardening so that the stuff can be recycled along with the rest of our kitchen waste. Our diligence regarding these cooking by-products has a local as well as a more general motive: the congealed fat doesn’t always make it to the larger pipes that cross London. The pipes running from the kitchen sink have become clogged up in the past and needed rather too much of my attention.

Similarly, we no longer contribute wet wipes to the mass of stuff being flushed away and, as we now know, contributing to fatbergs across the city. We wanted to believe that these wipes were genuinely degradable, like tissue paper, as some of the packaging suggested, but we were put right on this over ten years ago. We had to call out a specialist firm to unblock a drain at the side of the house, clogged up with knotted and tangled baby wipes. In our defence, we had two children in nappies at the time and took the view that flushing away the used wipes was better than putting them in the general waste, where they would end up as landfill, along with the disposable nappies themselves. We paid the man from the drainage company and took his advice: put them in the bin, not down the lavatory.

That short article from Time Out suggests that there will be a happy ending to the story of the record-breaking fatberg. It will be turned into “environmentally friendly biodiesel … producing enough energy to power 350 Routemasters for a day”. Even so, if you’re inclined to pour oil and fat down the kitchen sink, or flush wet wipes into the sewers of your town, please reconsider: this sort of thing can have disgusting consequences.



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