Science

Only You Can Prevent Fatbergs

Fatberg removal costs have doubled over the past decade in NYC. Flushable wipes and bacon grease are to blame.

a blob of grease and wet wipes
An artist’s rendering of a fatberg.
nyc.gov

You really shouldn’t pour bacon grease down the sink. That and other stuff flushed down residential plumbing drains is contributing to a rather gross and increasingly prevalent problem: floating blobby masses of trash in the sewers known as “fatbergs.” They’ve popped up in Charleston, Baltimore, and London. They’re washing up on beaches, where they’re sometimes eaten by dogs. In January, a fatberg “larger than a jumbo jet,” as the New York Post put it, was found beneath a small town southwest of London—particularly alarming because of the small population of people doing the flushing.

New York City is currently trying to stave off a growing fatberg problem. Since 2007, the cost of removing fatberg debris has more than doubled, according to Edward Timbers, the director of communications for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection. Left on their own, fatbergs can cause untreated water to flow into local waterways, or they can even back up of sewer water into homes, a public health issue. All told, cleaning screens and repairing damage from “baby fatbergs” (as science writer Erika Engelhaupt has described smaller blobs) and their kin currently costs the city about $20 million annually, according to Timbers.

To that end, the city has undertaken a campaign, describing the fatbergs on fatbergfree.nyc as “HUGE, DISGUSTING, DESTRUCTIVE, and COSTLY!,” alongside a cartoon illustration of a pile-up of grease, cotton swabs, and sanitary pads. Recently deployed posters in subways also feature the cartoon fatberg, along with giant, children’s-book style illustrations of where to dump bacon grease, tampons, and wipes instead of the drain (the trash!).

For Timbers’ department, alongside grease, the chief concern is wet wipes. They “serve as excellent building blocks for fatbergs,” wrote Engelhaupt in 2017. That year, New York City “took 53,269 TONS of debris (mostly wipes) off of our treatment plant screens and transported them to landfill,” he estimated in an email.

That’s surprising because we’ve known “flushable wipes” aren’t actually flushable for a while now—they don’t disintegrate like normal toilet paper. (These are adult wipes, to be clear—baby wipes are typically tossed in the trash along with a soiled diaper.) And we’re not at a loss for alternatives: bidet attachments have been available in the U.S. for decades. More recently, products like toilet paper sprays and gels have popped up to address the specific desire to have something wet to wipe with, which, specific bowel issues notwithstanding, is a preference rather than a need. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s the wipe makers that have helped cultivate the obsession with making your bum as clean as humanly possible, with marketing language promising a resulting confidence and superiority. But some lingering butt-germs are not really a health issue. Honestly, what’s grosser, a normal human process or the fatbergs we’re making with flushed wipes?