Erikka Askeland: The ‘fatberg’ in the sewer

Out of sight, out of mind. It is a handy human foible that once we can no longer see a thing it can be quite conveniently forgotten.
Erikka Askeland. Picture: TSPLErikka Askeland. Picture: TSPL
Erikka Askeland. Picture: TSPL

Until it rears its beastly head again, made bigger and stronger while no-one was looking.

It even has a name – the “fatberg”. Underneath London’s sewers, sweepers discovered the largest ever concatenation of congealed fat and wet wipes in the history of humankind. It was the size of a bus and it was estimated to weigh 15 tonnes – although how anyone came up with that figure strikes me as being a little too much information.

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The giant lump of lard and wet wipes was discovered under Surrey after locals complained their toilets weren’t flushing properly, and no wonder. Such excrescences, however, are a perennial problem as people unthinkingly flush cooking fat away. Not to mention those so-called flushable cleaning wipes – who knew that people were using so many of these paper products, and that they have become such a scourge?

Unsurprisingly, considering the country’s dietary dependence on chips, Scotland has fatbergs too. There is a telling video on Scottish Water’s website which features a tour of a sewer in the Highlands, showing its walls encrusted with adipose horror.

The water authority is planning a campaign in the autumn to remind us not to flush into our ancient sewerage system stuff that shouldn’t be there. And yet people persist. This week I rang Scottish Water and a chap named William provided me with a handy list of odd things folk somehow flushed into the system in the past year – including a fax machine, a golf club (which apparently caused all sorts of havoc in Ayr) and a whole load of cooked potatoes that somehow got into the network and were found in a manhole in Thurso.

There is also the goldfish that made it alive through the first stage of the treatment process at Stirling waste water treatment works. The staff kept him and named him “Lucky”.

William was able to tell me Scottish Water spends £6 million each year simply clearing out fatbergs and other unfortunate blockages.

It is clear most of us take the sewers for granted. Most don’t often think twice about the dark mystery of the network – which stretches to an astonishing 30,000 miles – that runs so secretly underneath our feet. Yet if you ask people what bit of technology is more impressive – a smart phone or a Victorian sewer – most would probably plump for the gadget.

Given a choice between which I could, or could not, live without, I’d have to go with the sewer. Arguably, the advent of Britain’s network sewers has done more for human health than the NHS and the entire pharmaceuticals industry. Before the first sewer in Scotland was built – under Bernard Street in Leith in 1780 and still in use – we were choking to death in rivers of our own filth. They used to call them French drains, a glamorous term for an unglamorous open sewer which festered with plague and cholera.

But the days of the “Big Stink” of 1858, which prompted the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers Act 1848 to start tunnelling under London, is long behind us. It was one of the most significant works of engineering in England at the time, led by Joseph Bazalgette, and it was a triumph. And although I did some digging (ahem), the name of the engineer behind Leith’s first sewer built almost a century before is obscure.

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Many of us have never had first-hand experience of the horror of such sanitation conditions. Even a rugged outdoor loo at the campground is only for those who aren’t faint-hearted. (The less I think about digging the latrine at Girl Guide camp back in the day, the better).

Which is why we seemingly have no compunction throwing nappies, wipes, chip-pan gunk and other muck down the pan. Having walked blithely for decades along the streets smelling sweetly of exhaust and hot food, we can ignore what makes us so relatively clean and healthy.

But deep underneath the streets, waxing slowly but ever so surely, the fatberg was a horror to us. It reminds us that what we dispose of does not disappear. Instead, it comes back to haunt us.