Warning: Graphic Content
You may want to put this article away if you’re eating or plan to soon.
A few weeks ago, a London newspaper’s headline stunned, “It’s gross beyond imagination.” A massive, solid monstrosity made up of grease and cooking fats, “flushable” wipes, and a multitude of unspeakable material flushed down your toilet or spun into your drains. In the United Kingdom, they call them fatbergs. Weighing 315,261 pounds or 143 tons, it is the equivalent of 11 double-decker buses or 20 African elephants. It is the length of four Boeing 747 airplanes. It’s not the first and will probably not be the last.
There is a new terror campaign in the U.S. Beginning in the early 80s, advertising told us that our tap water “wasn’t good enough.” Now we learn that that toilet paper isn’t good enough either.
The water and wastewater industry fought back with campaigns such as “What 2 Flush — only the 3 P’s.” Legislation was brought forward to require the labeling of wipes as “not flushable.” A large multi-national company sued a wastewater agency. The marketers then changed tactics. The new campaign was “know what to flush” and boasted that wipes were 100% flushable and dissolved in less than an hour.
When that was disproven by a multitude of YouTube users, the tactic changed yet again. Now using toilet paper was not sanitary, you needed “disinfection wipes.” Chemicals are added, including fragrances (because to feel clean, you must smell clean), kathon ( a type of preservative) and formaldehyde (yes, what Dr. Jekyll used to bottle his souvenirs). Doesn’t that sound like an excellent choice for cleaning your backside?
The proliferation of wet wipes continued baby wipes, One Wipe Charlies, Hygiene Revolutions, Dude Wipes, and Fanny Clean. Additionally, using kleenex or tissue was not enough, so Boogie Wipes debuted. Today, there was an advertisement for disposable washcloths. Not to be outdone, the DIY Pinterest posters pinned how you could make flushable wipes yourself. There is even a link to buy stickers to mark your new product with “Butt Wipes.”
In 2013, the flushable wipe industry recorded record sales and operating profit. By 2015, it was a 2.2 billion dollar industry. Handsome earnings for some and mammoth new bills for others.
Cities and wastewater agencies around the world are now faced with a new dilemma. The Melbourne Fatberg, the Belfast Fatberg, Austin, New York, San Fransisco, and others face increasing costs to remove wet wipes from sewers, pumps, and dig out rock hard fatbergs. Fatberg busters continue to break apart the one in England. A team of eight people is working seven days a week to clear the blockage, greasy chunk by chunk. They are progressing at a rate of 20 -30 tons per day. The workers told reporters compared removing it to breaking up concrete (143 tons, 11 double deckers buses, 20 African elephants and length of four Boeing 747’s worth.)
If after all of that, you still feel the need to use wet wipes, please do us one favor. Put it in the trash, not in the toilet. We won’t judge your preferences as long as we don’t have to jack-hammer them out of our sewer pipes.
The most interesting part of this whole story? The Museum of London tried to acquire part of the congealed block of wet wipes and grease. They wanted to call attention to the way we live our lives in a modern city. The museum curator visited the site of the fatberg. The problem with housing the block? The “horrid smell” would be hard to mask, even sealed in glass.
For more information visit: scwd.org.