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What Not To Flush: Guns, Rats, Wipes And The Origins Of NYC's Fatberg Crisis

Last week I was standing inches away from several large dumpsters as they were continuously filled with soaking wet trash that had traveled through the city's sewer system and landed here, right in front of me. These flushed items should have never been flushed, and as such they had been caught by a screen inside of a building at the Newtown Creek Wastewater Resource Recovery Facility. Once fished from a wastewater river that was steadily flowing below me, they were pulled up to where I stood; this process goes on 24/7, 365 days a year. It was like watching an endless loop of soiled wet wipes content. The odor was strong, and unsettlingly difficult to pinpoint.

I have seen your waste, New York, I have smelled it, I have recalled the smell of it involuntarily many times over the past week, and I have been stumped by some of what I witnessed, to be quite honest. I mean, listen, I don't need to know why you're flushing firearms down the toilet. I'm sure you have your reasons.

But a pistol was among the list of things I was told had been found in this screening system, and naturally I was curious of the backstory there. Other items included: cigarette packs, money, condoms, rats, and those cursed wet wipes. Wipes are everywhere in this room, hanging from the ceiling, tangled around ropes and cables and stuck to walls and virtually every surface, even snarling and damaging equipment. These wipes are a huge problem, and the problem is getting bigger.

In the below video, you'll meet Pam Elardo, the Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Wastewater Treatment in NYC and a goddamn hero. She came to us from Washington state a few years ago, where she even got Macklemore on board for a campaign about all of this. (Bet you didn't think you'd hear the name Macklemore in the piece on fatbergs, but here we are.)

Elardo is delightfully dedicated to her job, and to fixing our fatberg problem (among many other things), along with her team of over 6,000 employees—they are all dealing with our waste every day, so think about them the next time you flush something you shouldn't.

In this video, you can spot the aforementioned wastewater river, which sits about three stories below street level, and passes through the screen chamber. The screens catch physical items that were flushed and should not have been flushed, and "the rakes clean the screens and deposit the material on the conveyor belt where it gets sent to a dumpster." The wastewater then travels on to the next treatment area, and the dumpsters continue to be filled, destined for a landfill.

There are a couple of key ingredients needed for making a fatberg: cooking grease or oils (poured down a drain) and wet wipes (flushed down the toilet). These can combine to lead to three different outcomes:

  • What I saw. The items land in this facility, are caught by the screens, and sent to a landfill.
  • They meet up in our sewer system and form a congealed mass known as a fatberg.
  • They intertwine to form a braid-like mass, which we have referred to as a pre-fatberg, but really they are more like some nightmare garbage version of a rat king. Welcome to New York, baby.

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Pre-fatberg "wipe kings" being pulled from our sewers. (NYC DEP)

Above are some of these "wipe kings," but below is what a real deal fatberg looks like when it's stuck in a sewer system; sadly this one is from Michigan, as we have no visual documentation of one in New York City. (Though Elardo told me she saw one here recently that was larger than her, and looked like "a human Twinkie.") What you're seeing is a lot of cooking grease that has been poured down kitchen sinks, and a lot of wipes.

According to a 2016 report, the City of New York found that "more than 70 percent of sewer back-ups were caused by cooking oil and grease. Nationally, others set that number at 47 percent." So on top of eliminating those unbiodegradable wipes from your home, dispose of cooking grease correctly, too—instead of pouring it down your sink, let it cool, then toss it in the trash.

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A fatberg in Michigan, 2017. (Shutterstock)

Last year alone, the NYC DEP's Edward Timbers told me, "There were more than 2,100 confirmed sewer back-ups citywide that were caused by grease and wipes, which comprises nearly 90 percent of total sewer backups." And the problem is only getting bigger, which is why the city has launched a new awareness campaign.

"Over the last 10 years, debris removed from the screens at DEP’s plants (not just Newtown Creek) has risen by about 75 percent," Timbers said, "and cost to remove it has nearly doubled." In 2007, according to Timbers, 30,392 tons were removed from DEP screens; in 2017, it was 53,269 tons.

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These unflushable items were flushed, and caught in the facility's screens. This will now go to the landfill. (Scott Heins / Gothamist)

It costs $19 million a year to transport all of this to the landfills, and you are footing the bill, taxpayer. So not only should you stick to flushing the Four P's (Pee, Poop, Puke and toilet Paper) and not wet wipes, you should really stop using these "virtually indestructible" products altogether: Not only do wipes clog sewers and pile up in our landfills, they end up in our oceans and on our beaches, harming wildlife.

Yes, even the ones that say "flushable" on the packaging. There is an ongoing campaign to stop these companies from labeling their product as flushable (see this deep dive into the dirty world of wipes from The Atlantic a couple of years ago; not much has changed since). Wipes companies believe they will lose money if they remove the word "flushable," and they have and will continue to fight to keep it on there. But as we learned in that 2016 report, people are flushing non-flushables anyway, so what we really need to do is ban wet wipes altogether.

For their part, Timbers told me that the NYC DEP’s effort is two-pronged—first the department is educating the public through their fatbergfree.nyc campaign. Secondly, he says, "we are working on regulations and legislation to combat the way wipes are currently labeled. The industry has successfully challenged legislative efforts in other municipalities so we are working with the Law Department to craft legislation that would stand up to similar judicial scrutiny."

Right now you may be in your home, or a nice little restaurant, or a charming cocktail bar, but not very far beneath you there's a system that is transporting our waste. If you ever flush the wrong things, and/or pour grease down your sink, know that you are contributing to a congealed, Cloverfield-esque, sewer-clogging monster—in London, fatbergs have gotten up to over 200-feet long. So please, stop feeding this beast.

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