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Climate and Environment

The Thanksgiving Cooking Tip You Didn’t Know You Needed: How To Avoid A Fatberg

Spread out on a table: A brochure with separate pages that say "SCRAPE, POUR, WIPE" with graphics; a yellow food scraper, another brochure on avoiding sewer backups and a sink strainer.
The city of Santa Ana has an extensive outreach program, including swag, to educate residents on how to avoid clogged drains and sewage backups.
(Courtesy city of Santa Ana)
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Thanksgiving dinner, with all that butter, gravy and cream, can leave you feeling stuck to the couch. And it turns out, those same ingredients can get stuck in our pipes, wreaking havoc on sewers.

"Our drains work overtime during the holidays, because many people are spending more time at home doing a lot of cooking," said Robert Hernandez, water quality supervisor with the City of Santa Ana.

When fat, oil and grease — collectively known as "FOG" in the wastewater world — accumulate in sewer lines, they can cause sewage spills and the need for costly repairs.

And they can create what are known as fatbergs. And yes, it is as gross as it sounds.

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What Is A Fatberg?

"It's like an iceberg, but made of fat," said Mark Kawamoto, environmental protection manager at the Orange County Sanitation District.

Fatbergs are an agglomeration of all the grease and oily things we're not supposed to pour down the drains, but do anyway, sometimes combined with other things we're not supposed to flush, like wet wipes. Think bacon grease, the leftover drippings in the pan you cook your turkey in, even salad dressings and cream. When you pour them down the drain they can glom together, and can create slowdowns or blockages in our sewer systems.

A man in a white full-body suit, headlamp and gloves stands in the middle of a sewer holding a pale conglomerate that's about the size of a large toddler.
Tim Henderson, a "flusher" or trunk sewer technician holds a "fatberg" as he works in the intersection of the Regent Street and Victoria sewer in London on Dec. 11, 2014.
(Adrian Dennis/AFP via Getty Images

Fatbergs don't float like icebergs, but they can get huge. Wastewater workers in the city of London famously found a fatberg in 2017 that measured 250 meters long and weighed an estimated 130 tons.

The front of a flyer that reads "Don't ruin your holiday. Fight F.O.G." It has an image of three blobs wearing what look like pilgrim hats above a drain with a turkey drum in it.
The city of Santa Ana sends out flyers about holiday food disposal with its water bills.
(Courtesy of the City of Santa Ana

Kawamoto said he's never come across a fatberg in the wild. But Hernandez has, some 15 years ago, in a pump station in Santa Ana. "I remember seeing it and going, 'whoa, that is humongous.'"

Hernandez estimates it was about 30-feet high and 20-feet wide. "We had the vacuum truck come and suck it up and dispose of it," he said.

Giant fatbergs in Orange County, and elsewhere in California, are uncommon these days. Restaurants have to follow strict requirements for disposing of used oil and grease. And cities and sanitation districts have worked to educate residents about what they should and shouldn't put down the drain.

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How To Safely Dispose Of Food Waste

Here are some tips for a fatberg-free holiday:

  • Use a glass jar to store hot turkey or bacon grease until it cools down and can be safely thrown in the trash. You can also mix it with coffee grains or shredded newspaper to keep it from gunking up garbage trucks.
  • Even salad dressing and fatty things like butter and sour cream should go in the trash, not down the drain. 
  • Use a food scraper to scrape leftovers into the trash or compost — not the garbage disposal. 
  • If you're going out of town or are otherwise worried that your trash is going to sit out too long and stink, you can store food waste in a container in the freezer until trash day. 

Can't get enough of fatbergs? Here's a comic book about them. Plus, more tips from O.C. Sanitation District on how to avoid them.

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