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.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.