So how can we prevent fatbergs?

Eww: a piece of fatberg in the streets beneath London. Image: Getty.

Fatbergs – enormous solid masses of oil, grease, wet wipes and other hygiene products that congeal together to cause major blockages – are wreaking havoc on the sewers of cities around the world. A 130 tonne specimen described as a “monster” recently caused backups in sewers in London’s Whitechapel, and the cities of Baltimore, Singapore and Dannevirke, New Zealand have also all experienced similar issues in recent weeks.

Fatbergs are not a recent phenomenon, but have attracted increased attention in recent years as old sewerage systems struggle to cope with an increased consumption and disposal of everyday products like fats, oils and greases from cooking. This is a particular issue for cities like London with Victorian systems. The visceral disgust that runs alongside the image of fatbergs lingering under the city, and the potential impact they will have on local flooding, means that they will remain a topic that demands attention.

Strategies are already being put in place in order to prevent sewer fatbergs. Current water industry tactics tend to focus on removing sewer blockages and reducing the fats, oils and greases that enter sewers from commercial sources (such as restaurants). But around three quarters of the fats, oils and greases in sewers comes from domestic sources, making household disposal a key priority for change.

Awareness campaigns directed at the public currently focus on what people put down the kitchen sink. Current advice is that cooking fats, oils and greases should be disposed through food or solid waste recycling. But there is little information on how we can dispose of other products – like that fatty off milk at the back of the fridge – without pouring it down the sink. The mucky complexities of how people actually deal with fats, oils and greases in the home suggests that the solution might need to be more complex than awareness campaigns.

In a recent report we suggest that changing people’s broader behaviour related to food waste and disposal of fatty products is not going to be easy to change – and that we also need to look beyond the plughole.

Down the plughole

Fats, oils and greases are changeable, often smelly, visceral materials. The way we dispose of them is tied to attempts to reduce their impact on our kitchens and in our lives, and this becomes entrenched in our everyday habits and routines.

They can be troublesome materials to handle. The fact that they are liquid at cooking temperatures, and often at room temperature, makes them simpler to dispose of via liquid waste than via solid waste channels, yet their tendency to solidify and accumulate in the specific physical and chemical conditions of drains and sewers makes this disposal highly problematic. Fats, oils and greases are not only difficult to deal with, but many also find it unpleasant.

Evidence from research into food waste and disposal suggests that when food begins to deteriorate, its material properties – and the bodily reactions caused by its appearance, smell and feel in the people handling it – play an important role in how it is discarded. The more effectively and reliably it can be sealed off and ejected from the home with minimal human contact, the better.

Our research suggests that if the same is true of householders’ reactions to leftover fats then successful interventions to divert fats, oils and greases from sewers will mean providing an alternative, yet similarly effective, option for quick and seemingly hassle-free disposal than the kitchen sink.

These ideas of disgust, dirt, smell, and convenience are also likely underpinning similar dynamics for the disposal of wetwipes, nappies, and other hygiene products down the toilet rather than the bathroom bin.

Beyond the kitchen sink

But crucially, fats, oils and greases do not end up in our sewers purely due to decisions related to disposal at the kitchen sink. Rather, actions throughout the stages of food provisioning – including shopping, food preparation, cooking, dealing with leftovers, and clearing up – leads to fats, oils and greases entering sewers.

Another way of thinking about the issues is in regards to tracing the numerous decisions that occur in the process of carrying out routine household tasks: moments in which resources are used up and waste is produced. This is broader than just individual behaviours and involves a consideration of all of those moments where waste fat is indirectly or directly produced – such as when we are choosing what to cook; how much oil to use; whether to reuse that rendered meat fat from the Sunday roast in the next meal we cook or discard it.


Insights into what shapes behaviour at these points lead to a range of implications and recommendations for policies and intervention programs. For example, there needs to be a recognition that disposal of products like fats, oils and greases is part of a wider set of kitchen practices that are in turn shaped by wider systems of food provision (supply chains, retail, and so on) as well as waste disposal facilities.

Interventions that influence household behaviour therefore don’t just need to target the household but could involve product innovations that reduce likelihood of excess fat oil and grease production – for example, fryers that use less fat. Retail environments and packaging could be used as means of changing social norms. Sewerage systems could be rethought. Effective alternative waste fat and oil disposal infrastructures could be envisioned.

The ConversationRather than fatbergs just being seen as a water industry issue there needs to be greater collaboration across sectors (water, energy, food) to deal with the problem. Potential solutions need to range from the level of the household right through to new infrastructures that are experimenting with turning this mucky fatberg problem into energy and biofuel.

Alison Browne, Lecturer in Human Geography and the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester and Mike Foden, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Keele University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.