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Saving the world one flush at a time

Michelle Ringland

Michelle Ringland is head of marketing at Lanes for Drains - part of Lanes Group plc, the UK’s largest independent drainage contractor. The company recently launched the ‘Fatberg Fighters’ campaign, offering free lesson plans, and working with Primary schools across the UK to empower children to take the lead in educating their families about how to protect our sewers and what should, and shouldn’t, go down the drain.

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Images courtesy of author. Images courtesy of author.

In September 2017, the world’s imagination was captured by the ‘monster fatberg’ - considered the world’s biggest - that was found blocking the sewers in Whitechapel, London.

Weighing 130 tonnes and measuring 250 metres in length, the fatberg was a congealed mass of fat, oil and grease (also known as FOG), as well as other items like wet wipes, sanitary products, cotton buds and condoms. These products had been put down drains over time, but aren't biodegradable. In fact, many sanitary items and wipes contain plastics in the woven fabrics. It took weeks for professionals to excavate the whole fatberg, at an estimated cost of more than £1 million.

Its discovery made headlines in 115 countries worldwide, with broadcasting crews visiting from afar to report to the public how our “Many sanitary items and wipes contain plastics in the woven fabrics.”Victorian sewers have been affected by modern-day life. Even Greg James, presenter on BBC Radio 1, visited the fatberg and broadcast a whole show from the scene.

Fast forward to today, and the final piece of the fatberg is now featured in an exhibition in the Museum of London - the first time a fatberg has ever been put on public display - and has proved a huge hit with the public.

A man-made phenomena

But why has it attracted so much attention? Well, because not much is known about these monsters that lurk beneath our feet. But more should be known about them, because they are extremely common - a purely man-made phenomena, and can cause serious problems, including:

  • Sewer blockage.
  • Structural damage to sewers and drains.
  • Sewage floods.
  • Extensive local flooding during heavy rain - causing disruption to travel and businesses.
  • Higher insurance premiums for local homeowners.
  • Higher water bills for local homeowners.
  • Health risks from sewage spills.
  • Pollution damage to natural water courses.
  • Environmental/wildlife risks as a result of plastics found in wipes and other products in fatbergs.
  • Health risks posed to drainage engineers while removing fatbergs.

For all those reasons, I feel very strongly that awareness and education needs to be improved among UK schools about what should be put down the drains and why it’s so important to protect our sewers.

But where do we start? Step forward, children - your time is now.

Challenging a prevailing culture and set of behaviours about what people put down drains is a long-term task. While it can be extremely hard to change behaviours - look at campaigns to make people wear seatbelts, reduce the number of plastic bags used when shopping, and stop dogs fouling on the street - it does eventually work, over time.

It’s vitally important to start early and teach the youngest generation how to treat our infrastructure and environment with care.

Tools for schools

This is a view that is shared by many of the major utilities companies, many of which have education teams that offer fantastic free resources for schools that you can use. Here are a few examples that could help you educate your pupils:

In fact, most utilities companies also offer great opportunities to visit sewage treatment plants. Such outings help children see for themselves what happens to the things that get poured and flushed down the drain. If you get in touch with your local utility company, their education team should be able to arrange a visit, or even come into your school - and often that’s free of charge.

A simple science experiment

One of the simplest ways to illustrate how fatbergs may become formed and clog our pipes and drains is to conduct a simple science experiment.

1. Show the children a range of fats, oils and grease that might be used in a typical kitchen for cooking. Melt some fat and discuss how, when we cook with fats like butter or lard, they melt and become a liquid.
2. Pour the melted fat into cold water - simulating what might happen when it goes down the sink - and show them how the melted fat begins to solidify.
3. If you can, get hold of a piece of piping, preferably a ‘p-trap’ or ‘u-bend’ that you might find under a kitchen sink, and pour the mixture of cold water and melted fat into the pipe. You should find that the solidified fat sticks in the pipe and doesn’t come out the other end, while the water moves through freely.

While you’re at it, why not mix together a range of fats, oils and grease, adding wet wipes and cotton buds to the mixture, to make your very own disgusting fatberg? Show the children what we’re creating every day in our drains and sewers and, if you dare, ask them to smell it!

Three simple tips for changing children’s behaviour

You’ve got a great opportunity to teach your pupils about a unique and important topic that could help them become agents of change within society and actually have a huge impact on the world around us. And now’s the perfect time - with the world’s interest being piqued by these fatbergs that are suddenly on the agenda. What’s more, I’ve seen first-hand how children are interested and engage with topics like smelly stuff and toilets!

Even if you feel it might be a stretch to dedicate a set of lessons to teaching your children about sewers, drains and fatbergs, there are three simple messages that I’d like to encourage you to share with your pupils that they can take home with them:

1. Use a sink strainer for sink plug holes, and never, ever pour fats, oils and grease (FOG) down the sink.
2. Put any FOG generated from cooking into a small container. They could then add some nuts and seeds, let it set and voila - you’ve got a bird feeder to put in the garden or outside areas!
3. Ensure that only the 3 Ps - pee, poo and toilet paper - go down the loo.

In our society, children are arguably the most malleable and open to change - let’s teach them to champion best practices and adopt good habits that can become rooted in our homes for generations to come, one flush at a time.

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