The fat of the land

No, this post isn’t about the Prodigy, it’s about muck.

In 2017 a monstrous fiend was discovered lurking in the sewers beneath the streets of Whitechapel. The ghost of Jack the Ripper? No. The FATBERG *screams*

Sewers are good, and necessary, and help to reduce outbreaks of cholera in heavily populated areas like London. Sewers are also a bit smelly and dirty and full of things we never wanted to see again.

The term ‘fatberg’ was first used by London sewer workers to describe the accumulations of oil and grease and ‘stuff’ that build up in sewers, and which have to be cleared out regularly  in order to keep the channels flowing. It’s a real word now because it entered the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015 but in September 2017, the mother of all fatbergs was found in the Whitechapel sewer.

It was big. Weighing ~130 tonnes and stretching along the sewer for over 250 metres, so it had to go. The difficulty was its sheer mass and solidity. The usual method of removal is to blast it with jets of water to break it up, and then suck it out through pipes into tankers for disposal. Unfortunately, the Whitechapel Fatberg was, in places, so rock solid that blasting it with jets of water couldn’t break it up, so the only alternative was for the sewer workers to hack it to pieces with  picks and hand-shovels. Over the course of nine weeks, eight waste engineers, working nine hours a day rid the sewer of the fatberg.

The workers had to wear protective clothing and masks in order to avoid being poisoned by the toxic waste or infected with diseases, which can be breathed in or even absorbed into your system through your skin.

Even though they were only handling a small sample, the conservators at the Museum were also kitted out with similar protective gear. During the process of preservation mould grew on the samples and flies hatched out of them. The samples were x-rayed to see what was inside (and to check for hazards like sharps), then they were dried out, reducing the risk of contamination, and enclosed in three boxes, one inside another inside another. They are now displayed in sealed units.  That Fatberg bites.

And here it is.

I was initially (madly) expecting the chunks to be huge, sofa-sized pieces but, having seen what was involved in preserving them and the hazards they posed, I can see why that could never be.

So why on earth has such a piece of grimness ended up on display in a museum?

Well, the Whitechapel Fatberg’s ‘celebrity’ presented the Museum of London, and the ‘Curator of Fatberg!’, Vyki Sparkes,  with an opportunity to tell the story of something that is common and everyday in our city, as in all cities, waste. The enormous volume of waste generated by a big city is a constant problem that has to be monitored and managed but which we don’t all necessarily consider very often. Putting a piece of it in the museum that tells the story of London helps us to consider it. On display, we’re only seeing a tiny piece of a huge problem but it’s a way to have the conversation about how we can all help to reduce that problem, just a little bit.

We can all think about what we’re flushing down the loo. Flushable wet wipes may be marketed as easy to dispose of, but they don’t biodegrade so flushing them is just shifting the problem to somewhere else. The Fatberg, as it’s name suggests, is made up of a base of fat; oil, cooking fat and fats found in product such as hair conditioner. Some of this, at least, doesn’t have to end up down the drain. We can all make decisions about how we dispose of our waste and also make decisions about what we purchase and how that can help to reduce waste a bit.

You can read about the rationale and process for bringing the Fatberg to the museum on the museum’s own blog.

The good news is that the fat content of the fatberg is actually recyclable. It can be recycled and reused as biodiesel fuel, powering the buses. Other elements have been recycled to make fertilizer.

The Fatberg has just gone on display at The Museum of London and will be there to visit, for free, until the 1st July as part of the ‘City Now City Future’ season.

 

p.s. Is that a Double-Decker wrapper sticking out of the Fatberg?

 

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