A ‘fatberg’ the length of two tennis courts was recently discovered lurking near a seaside sewer off Sidmouth in the UK, but the sinister mass of fat and wet wipes is just the tip of a world-wide problem. Closer to home, a fatberg found at the Shellharbour pumping station on NSW’s south coast reveals the potential for havoc in Australia’s sewage systems.
The image above is of a fatberg at the Shellharbour pumping station on NSW’s south coast illustrates how a blockage caused by non-biodegradable wet wipes can damage public sewage works. (Image Credit – Shellharbour wastewater pumping station removing wet wipes and other materials, Sydney Water).
Consisting of hardened fat, oil and wet wipes, the British fatberg found off Sidmouth, a genteel English seaside resort town in Devon, England, was 64 metre (210 ft). Their local water authority reported it was an eight week process to cut up the fatberg and remove it from the town.
In the South Coast region of New South Wales, local water authorities are also battling the fatberg phenomenon.
The ordinary wet wipe, especially the baby wipe, has emerged as a key culprit.
The Water Services Association of Australia estimates that large fatbergs caused by a combination of non-biodegradable wet wipes, congealed fat and tree roots are costing water utilities across Australia $15 million per year.
A wet wipe consists of moistened paper or plastic cloth, so does not break apart of dissolve in water as paper tissues do.
At Curran Plumbing specialised equipment fitted with fibre-optic cameras can go into drains and reveal to homeowners some of the problems created by wet-wipe blockages.
A Sydney Water survey of consumers in the greater Sydney area, “Wipes Disposal: Behavioural Change Study” found one in four Illawarra residents flushed wet wipes down the toilet, which can clog up pipes and block toilets.
Wet wipes are constantly clogging up the sewerage systems. In New South Wales, the cost of removing 500 tonnes of wet wipes from the network costs Sydney Water on average $8 million per year.
A Choice magazine investigation into the problem reports, “growing maintenance costs will soon start coming out of our own pockets in the form of higher water bills.”
The main components of a fatberg
According to the Sydney Water website, the main culprits of a fatberg are:
- wet wipes and bathroom products flushed down the toilet
- cooking fats and food scraps ‘rinsed’ down the sink.
Oil and grease harden as they hit the cool water of wastewater pipes, and then combine with other waste like wet wipes to create ‘fatbergs’.
In winter when household pipes are colder, fat in drains congeals more quickly. Fat may also react with the pipe lining to ‘saponify’, with the oil converting into a solid, soap-like substance.
Restaurants, hotels and takeaway shops which don’t dispose of fats and oils properly, and those with faulty grease traps, have also contributed to the fatberg problem around the world.
Fatbergs are bad news for household drains
Down the pipe, a household fatberg that escapes into the sewers can join up with like-minded fatbergs to form monsters like the ones in Sidmouth and Shellharbour.
Wastewater backups resulting from the fatberg blockages mean that sewage could overflow into homes, backyards and waterways.
The issue affects everyone, including beach users.
Sydney Water has several wastewater treatment outlets located along NSW’s south coast including: Cronulla (discharging at Kurnell Peninsula), Bellambi (at Bellambi Point), Port Kembla (at Red Point) and Shellharbour (off Barrack Point). The biggest of Shoalhaven Water’s wastewater treatment outlets are: Nowra (discharged in the Shoalhaven River ), Ulladulla (off Racecourse Beach) and Berry (pasture irrigation).
Report fatberg sightings immediately
As the risk of sewage overflow from a fatberg is high and the public health implications are severe.
Call your plumber if you spot the symptoms of a fatberg in your household drains, including:
- Bad odours
- Drains or toilets not clearing quickly
- Wastewater overflow
- Gurgling noises in sanitary drains
Phone the water authority if you spot similar signs of a fatberg in a public area or sewage plant. In the Illawarra and Shoalhaven areas of New South Wales,
- Sydney Water runs a hotline 13 20 90 for emergency and after hours reports of water leakage.
- Shoalhaven Water runs a hotline (02) 4421 3100 for emergency and after-hours reports of water leakage.
STOP feeding the fatbergs!
While it may seem convenient to flush away unwanted items or trickle slops down the sink, this is the start of a fatberg problem that affects both your home and the wider community.
The advice from Shoalhaven Water is:
- Only flush toilet paper down the toilet. Put other items in the garbage. Rubbish, children’s toys, tennis balls, nappies, clothing, sanitary pads/tampons, cooking waste, sand, and other wastes are not suitable for flushing into the sewer system.
- Don’t put food scraps, oil or cooking fats down the sink. These can solidify when they cool and cause blockages. Instead wipe pans with a paper towel and throw the towel in the bin.
Consider the opportunities for recycling too. Cooking oil can be collected and then filtered and recycled into bio-fuel, cosmetics and stockfeed; fats can make tallow. Solids can be composted or used for agricultural pastures.
Water authorities are tackling the fatberg problem in these ways:
- Awareness campaign – Sydney Water’s award-winning campaign to ‘keep wipes out of pipes’ highlights what should and shouldn’t be flushed down the toilet.
- Legislation – The ACCC instituted proceedings in the Federal Court in December 2016 against Pental Limited and Pental Products Pty Ltd, alleging false or misleading representations in relation to ‘flushable’ wipes marketed and supplied in Australia.
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