Let’s set the scene.

You’ve just cooked a huge family roast dinner. I’m talking roast potatoes, roast parsnips, roast chicken – the lot. However, while you were cooking you forgot to use any tin foil, so the excess oil and fat you used is now effectively lining the baking tins. It’s no big deal though – you can always sort it out after you’ve eaten.

You move to the table to get stuck into your food. Before you start eating though, you accidentally knock over the jug of gravy when reaching for a knife and fork. You run back into the kitchen, grabbing some kitchen roll to clear up the mess. You get the stain all cleaned up and are just about to throw away the dirty kitchen roll, when you notice your bin is full. Typical. You want to get back to your nice hot food as quickly as you can so, what would you do in this situation?

For many of us, we’d do exactly the same thing. We would either throw the excess oil from the baking tins down the sink while it’s in liquid form, or wait for it to congeal and leave the dishwasher to sort out the problem. Then, we’d potentially throw the used kitchen roll down the toilet so we could get back to our food sooner rather than later. After all, kitchen roll is quite similar to toilet paper so it must break down in the same way, right?

Adjusting attitudes

Wrong.

It’s attitudes like these which contribute to the growing ‘fatberg’ problem that the UK is currently facing. When we flush non-flushable items down the toilet, or dispose of fats and oils down the sink, we don’t only create problems for plumbers, we also create issues for ourselves.

Nappies, tights, condoms, plasters, sanitary towels, tampons, kitchen roll, dental floss, oil, fats, food waste – none of these products are designed to go down sewage pipes. Our old-fashioned sewage systems simply aren’t equipped to deal with them.

When these items get disposed of, either via the sink, dishwasher or toilet, they accumulate and block the sewage pipes. Over time, this blockage builds up to form a large mass of disgusting waste by-products known as a fatberg. After this mass grows to a certain size, it causes a number of expensive problems to occur – both plumbing-related and health-related. Whether it be flooding inside or outside your home or a health problem due to overflowing sewage these blockages cause a mess and are expensive to sort out. For a blocked pipe alone, a plumber can cost around £200 to sort the issue out. Couple this with that fact that there are 6.7 million blocked drains in the UK each year, and that works out at over £1.3 billion each year.

Contain the problem

So, what can you do to prevent fatbergs? We now know that incorrectly disposing of fats and oils can cause blockages in our sewage systems, so how should you dispose of them instead? You can’t simply throw liquid oil or fat in the bin – it would go everywhere and stink out your home.

One thing you can do is use a spare container – such as a margarine tub, plastic pot or jam jar – to capture any excess cooking fat and oil. You can then safely place this into the bin, making sure the lid is on tight beforehand! You could even save excess fat or oil to reuse another time, but make sure you’re aware of these things before you do.

As a preventative measure, you should also scrape off any leftover food on your plate before loading it into the sink or dishwasher. Or, if you’ve got a dog, you could just let them handle the leftovers on your behalf.

Three Ps (and a V)

Toilets are only able to handle the three P’s (pee, poo and toilet paper), and the occasional V (vomit). Anything else you think you can throw down the toilet, you can’t – put it in the bin. Even toilet tissues which say that they’re flushable, they’re not – they actually take significantly longer to decompose than traditional toilet paper does. Just because they have a cute golden retriever puppy on them doesn’t mean you should believe what they say.

Make sure your bathroom has a bin available to throw non-flushable items away into. It’s all to easy to fall in a pattern of ‘I’ll flush this wet wipe, just this once’, but don’t. Solving the fatberg problem requires a solid effort from everybody. Remember that it’s not just your house your helping, it’s the wider environment too.

The tip of the fatberg

While it’s all well and good knowing how to dispose of fat correctly, and understanding which items you can and can’t flush, more still needs to be done to make the issue more widely known. Every individual can play their part, but it’s also up to certain industries to make changes as well. Fatbergs should not be a problem that only the water industry have to deal with. The FMCG industry should be manufacturing products and packaging that clearly states how to correctly dispose of them. Likewise, food manufacturers should be crafting foods that either don’t use or require much oil to cook.

While fatbergs aren’t a recent phenomenon, and there are certain strategies already in place, more public campaigns are also needed to make people more aware of the problem. This will involve a combined effort from both the government – to start the conversation – and the retail industry – to broadcast it out to the wider public. Effective alternative options for disposing of waste fat and oil also need to be created and implemented, so that people don’t have to rely on having a spare margarine container on hand. As this article discusses as well, our sewage systems really are in dire need of an upgrade.

The only saving grace that fatbergs have is that they can be burned and turned into a form of biofuel – a renewable energy source that can be used to heat our homes. While this may be great, most UK households still use either gas or electricity to power their houses. Therefore, until there is an effective system in place, capable of converting these fat masses into energy, the fatberg problem will only get worse before it gets better.