Have you flushed something other than toilet paper down the toilet? Ever been too tired to reach for the paper towel and instead just decided to pour some oil or fat down the kitchen sink? Well, we’re sorry to say you have contributed to a big problem in Australia. A $1 million dollar ‘fatberg’ problem.
What is a fatberg?
A fatberg is a solid mass made up of non-biodegradable materials such as wet wipes. They’re congealed together with the fat and oils people pour down drains, ultimately creating one giant messy problem.
“We work really hard to retrieve wet wipes from the sewer but we do still sometimes get a build-up of them which can cause sewer blockages, inconveniences to customers and harm to the environment. When combined with the fats and oils that people pour down the drain, the fatberg is born.” — Pat McCafferty, Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water.
Yarra Valley Water estimates that in an average week they retrieve over 14 tonnes of wet wipes and rags from sewers. That’s a staggering amount of material circling our pipes. It is, however, not entirely our fault. Companies often market wet wipes as flushable products in order to encourage sales, when they are, in fact, not made from any even remotely flushable material. It can take up to 6 months for a wet wipe to decompose naturally. A study by Ryerson University tested 101 single-use wipes, 23 of which were advertised as ‘flushable’, and found not one wipe passed a flushability test. Consequently, we recommend not flushing wipes, even if the packet says you can.
Fatbergs negatively impact household plumbing, the environment, and sewage systems. Not only as a society do we need to stop flushing solid products down the toilet, but manufacturers also need to take responsibility and start labelling their products correctly. Last year Pental was forced by the Federal Court to pay $700,000 for misleading customers into believing their bathroom and toilet wipes were flushable. This outcome is a positive one and a good example of companies being held accountable for their impact on the environment, however, it’s only the beginning. Companies continue to mislead consumers regarding the environmental impacts of their products and it is an undeniable right for people to know the effect their purchases can have on the environment.
To raise awareness about fatbergs in Melbourne, Yarra Valley Water donated 10 per cent of the fatberg they removed from Melbourne’s sewer to Melbourne Museum‘s Gut Feelings exhibition, which runs until February 2020.
The exhibition, which offers the public a behind-the-scenes look into what happens inside your gut, intends to raise awareness of what happens when wet wipes, fat and oil combine in Melbourne’s sewers.
“Having the fatberg on display in Melbourne Museum is part of (Yarra Valley Water’s) wider push for people to stop flushing wet wipes down the toilet,” – Pat McCafferty, Managing Director of Yarra Valley Water.
It’s easy to assume the inspiration for the Gut Feelings exhibition came from the Museum of London, which acquired samples of the Monster Whitechapel Fatberg (pictured below) for their museum last year. The Monster Whitechapel Fatberg weighed a whopping 130 tonnes and stretched more than 250 metres. The exhibition ran from February 2018 to July 2018, telling the story of the 9 weeks it took to remove the monster blocking the East London sewer.
Becky Trotman for Thames Water told the BBC that the Museum of London fatberg display served as “a vivid reminder to us all that out of sight is not gone forever, so please help keep London and all the sewers flowing – don’t feed the fatberg.”
What can you do to prevent fatbergs?
Yarra Valley Water advises only flushing the three p’s: pee, poo and toilet paper. Wet wipes, including ‘biodegradable’ wipes, condoms, and sanitary products should be thrown in the bin, not the toilet. It’s a similar story with oils, fats and food scraps. Throw these products in the bin, rather than down the sink. This also applies to harsh chemicals such as paint, but small amounts of cleaning products and detergents won’t cause any trouble.
If you follow these tips you’re guaranteed to help the environment and your wallet. Don’t feed the fatberg! Be mindful about what you flush and pour down the sink.
Grab tickets to the Gut Feelings exhibition at Melbourne Museum here.
*Content Warning* If you do not have a strong stomach, we advise against watching the following video of the monster fatberg found in a London sewer.