London sewers were recently stuck thanks to a massive pile of garbage and human waste. Diapers (or 'nappies' in the U.K.), condoms, feminine products, oils, grease, and congealed fast combined into one massive 'fatberg' -- a combination of 'fat' and 'iceberg.' And at 130 tonnes (143.3 tons) and over 250 meters long (820 feet), it set a record for the biggest pile of crap ever to clog up a sewer. Engineers with city services and maintenance are struggling to create an extraction plan.
If anything, let this story serve as a reason to buy quickly compostable items.
For some perspective, the fatberg is as heavy as 20 African elephants. Workers with the Thames Water Company have been working on removing the fatberg around the clock. Matt Rimmer serves as Thames Water's head of waste networks, and so this crap ended up on his desk (literally).
"This fatberg is up there with the biggest we’ve ever seen. It’s a total monster and taking a lot of manpower and machinery to remove as it’s set hard," he said. "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."
Currently, the extraction process is a round-the-clock job. Its crew of eight workers take high-powered jets to break up the mounds of waste. Each time they break apart a new section, they're exposing themselves to a slew fresh bacteria and noxious fumes. The engineers remove 20 to 30 tonnes per shift. They work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. And these men still aren't done.
"We check our sewers routinely but these things can build up really quickly and cause big problems with flooding, as the waste gets blocked," Rimmer noted. "It’s fortunate in this case that we’ve only had to close off a few parking bays to get to the sewer. Often we have to shut roads entirely, which can cause widespread disruption – especially in London."
And in a city of nearly 8.8 million people, a blocked road (particularly a heavily-trafficked road) can be a serious headache.
What's crazy is that this isn't the only fatberg in the United Kingdom's history. There was another monster fatberg dubbed the Kingston Monster unearthed in 2013. However, this new fatberg is 10 times larger than the Kingston Monster, according to reports. And in 2014, a fatberg the size of a commercial passenger plane took over four days to clear under London's streets. That fatberg was just an 80-meter stretch of waste.
Cutting the Crap
According to Dave Dennis, who served as sewer operations manager for Thames Water Co. during the 2014 fatberg, nearly £12 million is spent each year dealing with and preventing blockages.
So how can people prevent this from happening? Will brilliance in engineering solve this problem once and for all? Well, according to the engineers themselves, people not throwing their crap down the drain would be the first step.
"Fat goes down the drain easily enough, but when it hits the cold sewers, it hardens into fatbergs that block pipes," Dennis told the BBC in 2014.
Rimmer echoed similar suggestions.
"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play. Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish and our message to everyone is clear – please ‘Bin it – don’t block it’."