Fatbergs: A Worsening Problem for New York’s Wastewater System

As people cook at home and disinfect their households more frequently due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, fatbergs are becoming a worsening problem. A combination of the words fat and iceberg, fatbergs are large masses of common household trash items that do not belong in the water works including cleaning wipes, grease, and various personal hygiene products. Improper disposal means clogged pipes, sewage backups, damaged equipment at wastewater treatment plants.

Many popular products that are marketed as “flushable,” including disinfecting wipes, do not disintegrate in water. Wastewater is treated in three main steps: physical, chemical, and biological. However, the physical treatment step is being severely slowed by massive amounts of products that are obstructing the filters.

In 2018, fatbergs were responsible for up to 90% of sewer backups in New York City. Around 50,000 tons of non-flushable waste had to be removed from waste treatment plants and moved to dumpsters, where it inevitably ends up in a landfill. This cost the NYC Department of Environmental Protection about $19 million in 2018.

Workers at sewage treatment plants are often responsible for manually cleaning out these fatbergs. This is a difficult and hazardous job that could be avoided if people appropriately disposed products and avoided flushing grease and plastic. Additionally, the money used for cleaning up fatbergs could be used to solve bigger issues at these plants, such as controlling odor and upgrading outdated equipment.

This significant problem will only worsen as households continue using disinfecting wipes and paper towels to avoid transmitting COVID-19. NYLCV urges you to take note of which products you are flushing and which are not flushable to keep our sewers free of excess, harmful debris.

CBS New York has compiled tips to help you make smarter flushing decisions:

DO NOT flush any hygiene or cleaning wipes or any other trash down the toilet, even if they have a “flushable” logo. These labels can be deceiving and misleading, so instead, throw all of these products in the trash.

DO NOT dispose of any grease down drains. Always place grease in a non-recyclable container and throw it into the garbage.

DO flush only the four ‘Ps’—poop, pee, paper, and puke.

DO utilize reusable personal care products, reduce paper towel use, and compost appropriately.

DO recycle any cardboard, plastic packaging, and finished toilet paper and paper towel rolls.