Last month, Thames Water found what it described as “Britain’s biggest ever Fatberg” beneath Whitechapel Road in London. Consisting of congealed food fat, tampons and personal hygiene products flushed down the toilet, the 15-tonne ball of solid waste reduced the flow of water throughout the sewer system to just 5%, and spanned the length of two football pitches.
The problem is unfortunately not a new one. Tower Hamlets – home to the record-breaking monster – saw a 30% increase in blockages throughout 2016-17, largely caused by items such as flushed wet wipes and sanitary products.
With the sewer systems throughout London dating back to the Victorian period, they’re simply not designed to deal with the sanitation requirements of a much larger population, and also with the wide array of sanitation products now on the market.
Tampons in particular are a primary concern. Widely believed to be flushable, they can often swell up in sewers where they combine with cooking oil to create impenetrable blockages of nauseating effluence. Located just meters beneath the streets of London, left untreated they can be more than enough to dissuade local residents from eating their Brick Lane bagels and baguettes, or worse still pose a higher risk of flooding and pollution to homes and the environment.
Thames Water were originally alerted to the problem when local residents started complaining that their toilets would not flush, and they’ve spent the last month breaking apart the mass using high-powered jet hoses, and even a saw. Even for the hardiest of stomachs, it’s not an enviable job.
The problem of perception
In a survey by Anglican Water, research found that 41% of women in the UK said they flushed sanitary items down the toilet, but were unaware of the problems this can cause to the sewer system and the environment.
While many argue that the packaging on these products is confusing, and there’s a responsibility for manufacturers to ensure that disposal guidelines are clearer, there’s an underlying issue around perception, with around eight out of 10 women stating that they found disposing of used tampons embarrassing.
Whether at work or during social occasions, women would commonly flush sanitary waste down the toilet because they didn’t want to leave it in a bin, largely due to four key points:
1: The smell.
2: If it unwraps in a bin (as is often the case with tissue paper), they didn’t want people to see.
3: They didn’t want to highlight their menstrual cycle.
4: To avoid embarrassment.
The overarching and important consideration in all of this is ‘discretion’. The process of disposing of sanitary waste has got to be made as discreet and as hygienic as possible, particularly in public premises where sanitary waste should be disposed of under stringent legislation.
There is a duty for all businesses of all sizes to follow these legislations for the health, safety and benefit of their own employees, guests and customers. Doing so can not only help to avoid the future build up of Fatbergs throughout our cities, but by providing suitable methods of feminine waste disposal it can also enhance a building or company’s reputation.
The recycling solution
In the past engineers have simply broken up Fatbergs, and either sent the waste to landfill, or left the sewer system to do their job. Now however, Thames Water has teamed up with leading waste to power firm Argent Energy, to transform these gut-wrenching blobs of pure evil, into environmentally friendly, green fuel.
The Fatbergs are now extracted into awaiting tankers, before being taken away to a recycling site in Stratford as part of a new recycling scheme. The water is extracted before the remaining fats and oils are turned into products like soap, biodiesel and fuel.
The scheme is a much friendlier alternative for the environment, where previously blocked sewers flow into rivers and oceans, requiring intensive cleanup’s every year to rid our beaches of sanitary waste.
With the EU’s Renewable energy directive setting a 20% target of energy consumption from renewable sources by 2020 (unlikely to be affected by Brexit), the waste from Fatbergs will produce 10,000 litres of biodiesel, enough to power 350 double decker buses for a whole day.
While recycling offers a more environmentally conscious solution, avoiding the problem entirely is the ultimate aim. Thames Water has urged residents to be more vigilant about their waste disposal habits, and have launched a new campaign called ‘Bin it – don’t block it’ in a bid to reduce the amount of rubbish put down sinks and toilets.
When it comes to preventing Fatbergs, everyone can play a role.
Kept for prosperity
In what’s been initially viewed as a strange request, The Museum of London has requested a piece of the city’s monster Fatberg to keep for prosperity, stating that it would help highlight challenges faced by the world’s cities. With an ever-increasing population, the exhibit would raise important questions about how we live today, and how we solve the problems of living in crowded metropolises.
While the disposal of tampons down the toilet may seem trivial, on a large scale that can cause serious damage, costing Thames Water £1 million a month clear the blockages. Disposing of them hygienically is not only good for the environment, but for the taxpayer and local residents who become distressed when sewage has backed up into their garden or home. It can all be avoided if everyone binned their tampons and sanitary waste appropriately.
But all of this opens up a broader question around what we do with our waste. Finding more practical, efficient and environmentally friendly recycling methods will most likely become a necessity in the future, as the global population and the demand for water and electricity continues to rise.
The future of recycling our waste
The objective for sanitation providers, entrepreneurs and innovators, is to fully transform how we view, manage and recycle our waste. Ultimately, we can all work to improve health, bolster economies and accelerate human progress, particularly in developing countries where the challenges are frequently more pronounced.
As a response, Bill & Melinda Gates have launched the appropriately titled “Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation”, directing innovative ideas towards new approaches to sanitation that don’t rely on sewers.
With dedicated funding for startups and new technologies that support the collection, transport and treatment of waste, a new wave of sanitation is entering the market.
In the future, toilets could be completely self-sufficient, completely devoid of the need for water and flushing. Rather than taking the waste away to be treated elsewhere, it will essentially be treated on-site. Prototypes already developed demonstrate that it’s possible to recover clean water from human waste and convert the rest into something more useful, like electricity and biological charcoal (bio-char).
With a $777k grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, researchers from the University of Colorado have developed a clever method of converting human waste into charcoal.
The team from Boulder has equipped toilets with parabolic mirrors that heat up the waste to a temperature in excess of 6000 Fahrenheit, sterilising human waste before creating biochar – a highly porous charcoal that has been shown to have a number of benefits for soil.
Used as a fertiliser, biochar creates a natural habitat for many beneficial microorganisms that can enrich soil, helping to improve the health of plants and crops.
Particularly useful for sandy, nutrient poor ground, it has also been shown to reduce acidity and greenhouse gas emissions, while improving water quality and retention that increases the availability of plant nutrients. Additionally, the biochar can be burned as charcoal and provides energy comparable to that of commercial charcoal.
The next phase of the project is to deploy the system in developing countries, and assess other technologies that may enhance the toilet system, including the use of high-temperature fluids that can collect, retain and deliver heat.
Biogas and a toilet made from horse dung
A lack of basic sanitation is a major problem for some of the world’s poorest countries. While cultural behaviour and preference is part of the issue, economics undoubtedly plays a part.
Installing and operating sewage and wastewater treatment plants is expensive, and the conventional wastewater treatment uses so much energy that it isn’t always environmentally friendly. As a result, Loowat is looking at an innovative solution to help address the problem in developing nations throughout the world.
The Loowatt toilet is made from 90% horse dung, and is completely waterless. The toilet has a biodegradable bag that when full is taken to an outdoor biodigester, where the waste is processed into liquid fertiliser, compost, electricity and biofuel for cooking.
With an opportunity to be managed by the local community, the system aims to reverse the cost of disposal by turning waste treatment into an opportunity for profit. The various business prospects this presents are an attempt to change negative cultural views about using a toilet (which exist in large parts of India), into something more positive and open for change.
The toilets of the future could not only provide a more sustainable, energy efficient solution to processing human waste, and instead of expending precious resources every time we use the bathroom – we’ll be producing them.