Condoms, Wet Wipes, Nappies, Tampons: Fatberg!
The fatberg could only materialise now. We have co-existed with masses of raw sewage since humans first stacked mud bricks, but the fatberg is uniquely modern, comprising a conglomeration of used condoms and tampons, wet wipes, disposable nappies, and septic sharps suspended in a concretion of cloying fat. Similarly, as a word it is of our time—‘fatberg’, first used in 2013 by the workers whose unenviable job it was to clear the subterranean blockage at Kingston upon Thames. Today, two shoebox-sized chunks of the 2017 Whitechapel Fatberg are being exhibited in City Now City Future, showing at the Museum of London until July. Similar blockages are found in most major metropolises so why are paying so much attention to this one? Why is the media fascinated with a lump of waste? Why has this semi-mythical object become a point of reference? Who does it speak to?
The fatberg is more than material waste, it is the accumulation and conglomeration of numerous discourses: of austerity; of wasteful expenditure and the imperative to reduce; of outsourcing and privatisation; of the necessity of profit and dividends; of holistic cleanliness, clean eating, minimal living, and fatphobic thinspiration. Against this, the fatberg is you—the fatberg is what you’re putting in yourself, the fatberg is sheer excess. A pallid yellow that suggests a jaundiced, bedridden George Best; an engorged goose liver; a fat-edged sirloin; fries and synthesised mayo; a crisp late-night samosa.
The London sewerage system traces itself to the designs of Joseph Bazalgette (chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works,) commissioned in 1858 following successive plagues of cholera and typhoid— new diseases to the city that killed tens of thousands. It’s true when Thames Water, the current monopoly owners of the capital's water and waste, say the sewers were not built for modern life. Bazalgette’s enclosed brick-built system was designed to mitigate the effects of pythogenesis, the spontaneous development of disease from filth, and miasma, foul smelling air that propagated disease. Germ theory, the foundation of modern medicine, would only come to be widely accepted by physicians in the 1880-90s. Bazalgette is remembered today as a ‘visionary’. Firstly, because (by sheer coincidence) his miasmatic sewer system reduced the chance of infectious germs spreading; secondly, the design compensated for heavy usage: he took the most generous estimates of population density and household waste before doubling the diameter of his sewers, while rationalising a series of existing gutters, channels, and pipes into a coherent whole. The result was a sewerage system deemed usable to this day.
Early one February morning, I went to see Fatberg! Both the show and exhibition space proved small. Only a few display cases, a distinct Horrible Histories aesthetic: hazard tape, a mannequin dressed in a biohazard suit, hand picks and shovels. The walls are scattered with facts and quotes, including one describing the clearing work—which required sewage workers to hack, dig, and blast the fatberg into tiny chunks before it was sucked up industrial hoses—as like “battling a giant Harry Potter movie creature.”
The highlight is the darkened corner containing pallid, crumbly blocks under a protective double layer of perspex. They rest there like any other museum treasure, but the fatberg presented particular problems to the conservators, the blocks are riddled with diseases and there are no handbooks on the preservation of raw sewage. Museum conservator, Andy Holbrook, tells me that they considered freezing the specimens, or using chemical stabilisation to ‘pickle’ them, “like a Damien Hirst.” The eventual solution was to simply let them air dry over the course of several weeks, but even this was a delicate process, and, of the two blocks on display, one has crumbled into fragments.
I spoke with Sharon Robinson-Calver, head of the museum’s conservation department, about the message the museum is communicating and what the fatberg says about the city, but I found a distinct neutrality in the way the institution talks about itself, by contrast, for example, with the Wellcome Collection. On the importance of exhibiting the fatberg now, “I think it says a lot about the sorts of pressures that modern cities face … it's quite important for us to show it and open a conversation up.” On what the fatberg says about the city, “We're not here to judge, but we are here to raise the issue … so it's a good point in time to raise awareness around those things.” On the message the museum sends by exhibiting it, “these things continue to grow under our feet, and it's good I think, to have a discussion about what we're going to do to stop them in the future.”
I find it difficult to swallow that the museum is remaining neutral in ‘opening up a conversation’, particularly as the exhibition’s main sponsor is Thames Water. Curation is the work of selection and of guiding the visitor to tell a story, and standing in front of the fatberg what I see is, like any museum display, an object chosen because it tells a story that tries to restore some primordial form, what the fatberg was once like. What is that now fictional form? Take a look at the newspaper headlines and press releases that tell and retell the myth of the fatberg, break them down, sift through the detritus and distil the essence. The same rubbish floats to the surface: ‘condoms, wet wipes, nappies, tampons’.
It doesn't matter that the wholeness of the fatberg, its celebrated size and weight—250 metres, 130 tonnes—gives the wrong impression. The samples are lighter than perhaps expected, curator Vicki Sparkes describes the weight and texture as like pumice. Claims made that wet wipes comprised 93% of the fatberg aren’t matched by the museum’s specimens. X-rays taken of the lumps to check for sharps and other interesting objects reveal nothing worthy of a moral panic; the white specs amidst the black are caused primarily by particles of grit, the few other finds include small amounts of hair, a single piece of a leaf, and, most notably, the orange and purple corner of a Cadbury’s Double Decker wrapper.
An even smaller 200g sample was sent for chemical analysis. The report by the Cranfield Water Science Institute shows that it’s made up of 62% fat, 19% ash/grit, 10% water, and 9% ‘others’. The types of fat can be broken down, and range from palmitic acid, to oleic acid, and myristic, linoleic and stearic acids. These are all used in cooking, yet precisely the same chemicals are also found in shampoos, soaps, and household cleaning products. And there’s a further question to be asked: these samples were taken from the dried fatberg, even then the water content was 10%, what was the water content of the fatberg in its original condition?
The fatberg exists, but who made it, and who does it exist for? Stuart White, the media relations manager Thames Water, has said, “There is definitely something repulsively human about this modern-day monster we helped create—largely through our own excess.” This is repeated by a sign in the exhibition that reads, “They are modern monsters, created by people and businesses who discard rubbish and fat which London’s Victorian sewer system was never designed to cope with … but the size and foulness of fatbergs makes them impossible to ignore and reminds us of our failings.”
Vanity. Lust. Gluttony. Poverty. Sinners, we were never supposed to attain this degree of luxury. We have failed the Victorians; rather than the industrious Joseph Bazalgette, we have women, children, but especially the extravagant poor, who demand running water, indoor toilets, cheap food, and care products. It’s Victorian in its references and its blame of moral failure. The emphasis on location is significant, there’s a classed and racial aspect to it. Whitechapel remains an area associated with the endemic filth and deprivation of the city—the East End was the last London area to be connected to Bazalgette’s sewers—it remains a working class area with 55% of the population identifying as BAME.
Bazalgette’s extensive sewerage system created more than just a relatively safer water supply. As Stephen Halliday describes in his book The Great Stink of London, it underpinned the concept of modern society as the safe elimination of waste. As a rule, what is flushed down the loo and washed down the sink is never experienced again, but this is an idea specific to industrialised societies from around 1850. The city as we know it is the expulsion and abjection of the fatberg, the separation of society from that which it is constituted by and necessarily built on. The fatberg menaces us, not just in the immediate sense of blocked drains, but because it disrupts the basic laws and flows of waste that are hidden from us—it threatens what it means to be modern.
Materially, symbolically, the fatberg isn't the refuse of a city but a part of it, and, similarly, the city is founded upon it. Human waste existed long before urban life: waste mounds of animal bones, flint tools, and seashells fill the archaeological record. Cities are founded on the wealth produced by people kept in cheap housing with poor sanitation and low salaries, the metropolis is built on the dead and decaying. There’s no clearer example of this reciprocal relationship than the fact that the vast majority of the Whitechapel fatberg was rendered down and distilled into biofuel for London Buses.
A caveat: it might seem that I’m defending the existence of fatbergs. I’m not. I’d rather no one had to take on the invaluable yet thankless job of clearing the sewers. These quietly heroic workers prevent the mass epidemics that formerly plagued London. As we consider a future without antibiotics we should remember their labour.
But no one regrets the task of clearing the sewers more than Thames Water, who tell us that it costs £1 million per month to rid them of blockages. That is a lot of money, but a far bigger figure is Thames Water’s operating profits for the year 2016-17, which came to £638 million. The same year, they paid £157 million in dividends. Even larger is their corporate debt, which stands at £11.1 billion as of September 2017. And now the £4 billion Thames Tideway Tunnel scheme—the gigantic, 7m diameter sewer from Acton to Stratford; the first major works since Bazalgette, due 2023—will be paid for by the customers of Thames Water, i.e. every single person in London, rather than by the company itself. In the meantime, they would prefer the city weren’t so large, that the appetites of its population, for food and sex and childbirth grow ever smaller.
Strange things happen when the organisations responsible for maintaining the sewers enter the discourses of health and leisure with a philosophy that resembles neo-Malthusian population controls. In 1876, shortly after the completion of Bazalgette's sewers, Benjamin Ward Richardson, a sanitary engineer and anaesthetist, wrote of the ideal city of Hygeia, designed around a complex sewer system with every minute detail of housing designed to be antiseptic, to be governed by sanitation engineers, and the city totally abstinent of alcohol and tobacco. Today, reports such as that by ‘Reshaping the Domestic Nexus,’ a project between the universities of Sheffield and Manchester, Defra, BEIS, Food Standards Agency and Waterwise, would rather subscribe to “targeted initiatives to influence behaviour through intervention” than reduce the companies’ continued profits by suggesting infrastructural improvements.
Prevailing discourses personalise the fatberg, finding subjective actors morally culpable, rather than seeing it as a failure of objective processes or a necessary duty to clean, which recalls the notion of the city as though not intended for humans, but for the veneration of its infrastructure. When blame is apportioned as such, the fatberg is made an atomised, individualised problem. It’s not the result of cascading failures. Flooding is not the result of increased base flow in sewers compounded by property development of, nor increased storm flow due to weather patterns and global climate change—it's parlayed as a symbolic, personal failing, directed towards a specific set of households. The language of the fatberg engulfs and absorbs them, they become one and the same: this is you! And this is what you’re doing to the city.
But there are ways of discussing causes of and solutions for waste disposal outside of the reliance on disgust and abjection that directs blame towards individuals, which seeks to find the impure and dirty. Instead, recognise the fatberg for what it is, the impersonal flows of waste and capital; and recognise the city for what it is: the accumulated lives of people trying to survive and enjoy life. Having inverted the fatberg and the city, invert the demands. Don’t consume less, demand more, demand a better standard of life. Don’t feed the fatberg—feed yourself.
Photograph by Museum of London