The word fatberg came to my attention a few years ago. The term was coined in the UK to describe the tangled mass of cleaning wipes and cooking fat that forms in sewage systems. The largest fatberg in London was defined as the size of a double-decker bus. Significant sewage blockages (fatbergs) have become more common in response to the pandemic. Over the past year, fatbergs have cost the Des Moines Metropolitan Wastewater Reclamation Authority over $100,000 since specialized trucks that clear large clogs in sewage lines had to be deployed about 30 times. This problem has plagued many other municipalities around the county. The situation became so bad in Charleston, South Carolina (16 clogs per month from April to June 2020) that a lawsuit was filed against the major manufacturers and retailers who claim the wipes are flushable.
Cities across the country have been carrying out aggressive awareness campaigns to inform consumers that wipes should not be flushed. Cleaning wipes are made of several materials, including polyester and polypropylene, which are plastic. Cotton, wood pulp, and rayon are also common materials in wipes. The stronger the wipe, the more likely it contains plastic-based materials, and plastic does not decompose. While some flushable wipes may decompose over time (those that do not have plastic content), they are still problematic since they were manufactured to be stronger than toilet paper. The breakdown of these wipes is slower than toilet paper.
It is best to avoid wipes made from plastic-based materials since they become non-recyclable plastic waste and will last far too long in the environment. It is also essential to use as few throwaway wipes as possible and dispose of them in the garbage, regardless of whether they are designated as flushable. Keep in mind that the former way of cleaning – using cotton towels or rags – can often provide the same outcome. Present-day lifestyles, which consist of so much disposable stuff, continue to result in many pollution problems. Consider reverting to sustainable cleaning methods as a way to protect the earth, Our Common Home.
Julie Peller Ph.D. is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ) and she leads the Environmental Ministry at Nativity of Our Savior in Portage IN. Julie has been writing a weekly column for church bulletins for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are in Advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), student and citizen participation in environmental work