“Fatberg, Straight Ahead!”

What if I told you “dissolvable” wipes don’t really dissolve?

It’s called a “fatberg”, and it’s one of the more interesting (if not disgusting) new words of the past decade. A mashup of the words “fat” and “iceberg,” a fatberg is defined as “ a congealed mass in a sewer system formed by the combination of non-biodegradable solid matter, such as wet wipes and congealed grease or cooking fat.” Do an internet search for the term “fatberg” and it will pull up a string of disgusting videos like this one showing massive fatbergs the size of blue whales clogging up area sewers.

While Wikipedia articles and web videos showcase how icky these massive clogs can be, they really are just the tip of the fatberg. In addition to the obvious environmental challenges posed by massive fat clogs in sewer lines, EORWA officials estimate that fatberg treatment and removal costs about $85,000 per year, or roughly $13.08 per person per month. Nationally, the problem Is estimated to cost roughly $1 billion per year.

“It’s a cost we would like to get down to zero,” says Valerie Moore Executive Director of the Eastern Ohio Regional Water Association. “That may sound ambitious, but if there’s one thing we’ve seen over the years, it’s that people really can make big changes in their communities if they can see a simple way to make a difference, and the fatberg issue is one that we think fits that definition.”

Photo Credit: Arne Hedriks

It’s an issue that is literally growing in sewer systems across the country and the world. Sydney, Australia’s water utility recently reported that 75% of its wastewater blockages were caused by wipes. And with the disposable wipes market expanding at a rate of 6 to 7% per year, officials like Moore are worried that these fatbergs will continue to expand as well. 

“We’re not telling people not to buy dissolvable wipes or use dissolvable wipes,” says Moore. “We just want them to know that if they do use them, that they aren’t really dissolvable, and that they do go somewhere – their sewer bills.”

While Moore and representatives from sewer systems hope consumers will get the message about wipes, sewer systems around the world say the burden of responsibility is not just on the consumers. Sewer systems from around the world have signed on and shared an International Wastewater Position Statement on flushability, which states a number of positions, including:

  • Only the 3Ps – Pee, Poo and toilet Paper should be flushed
  • Currently, all wipes and personal hygiene products should be clearly marked as “Do Not Flush” and be disposed of in the bin or trashcan.
  • Wipes labelled “Flushable” based on passing a manufacturers’ trade association guidance document should be labelled “Do Not Flush” until there is a standard agreed by the water and wastewater industry.
  • Manufacturers of wipes and personal hygiene products should give consumers clear and unambiguous information about appropriate disposal methods.

The document has been signed by sewer system operators from Australia to the UK, to the US, including the Metro Water Reclamation District, The Water Environment Federation, and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.

As wipes continue to gain popularity for their comfort and cleanliness, it grows more and more important for consumers to realize that until these manufacturers can demonstrably prove that their products do not lead to the creation of fatbergs, these products should be disposed of in the trash, not down the toilet.

Unless we can change course and start properly disposing of wipes, fatbergs (and the titanic utility costs associated with them) will continue to be straight ahead of us.