Fatberg fever: how the ‘Monster of Whitechapel’ has become a national treasure


It’s been almost a full year since valiant engineers from Thames Water and Lanes Utilities emerged victorious in their epic battle against the infamous Whitechapel fatberg, a colossal 130-tonne mass of congealed fat, oil, grease and sanitary products that was discovered blocking a 250-metre stretch of sewers beneath the streets of London.

It was one of the biggest fatbergs to ever be successfully removed, and was certainly one of Lanes Group’s most memorable jobs – and it doesn’t look like anyone will be forgetting about the “Monster of Whitechapel” any time soon! Following a hugely successful exhibition displaying chunks of the fatberg to the general public, the Museum of London has decided to add the stinking sewage samples to its permanent collection, forever enshrining its legendary status in local history.

What’s more, the museum has launched the FatCam – a 24/7 livestream of one of the fatberg samples, allowing viewers all over the world to watch what happens to the mass as it’s kept in containment. Sponsored by Lanes Group, the FatCam promises to offer a fascinatingly grisly spectacle; during its time on display, the fatberg was observed changing colour, hatching flies and sweating, and has since started to grow an unusual and toxic mould, as demonstrated by visible yellow pustules. From now on, you’ll be able to observe future changes in real time as they happen, from the comfort of your own home!

A cultural phenomenon

All of this goes to highlight the degree to which the Whitechapel fatberg has gone from being a disgusting drainage curio to a genuine cultural phenomenon over the last year – and the public’s fatberg fascination only seems to be getting stronger.

It’s worth noting, for example, that the FatCam itself was only launched in response to the phenomenal demand that the Museum of London saw for its Fatberg! display, which ran from February to July 2018 and coincided with a marked increase in visitor numbers to the museum. This reflects the viral impact of the story of the fatberg’s excavation, which was reported on in more than 100 countries within a month of the dig commencing, meaning that over a BILLION people worldwide are believed to have read about it!

However, the true cultural impact of the Whitechapel fatberg can be seen in its unprecedented reach beyond industry, academic and news media circles. Mainstream TV and radio channels have picked up the story and ran with it – DJ Greg James went as far as to present his BBC Radio 1 show from the actual fatberg site on October 3rd 2017 – and this seems to have helped the concept to capture the public’s imagination in a remarkable way.

In June, budding young writer Francesca Wade won bronze at the 500 Word Awards, a short story competition organised by BBC Radio 2, for writing an imaginative crime story about a fatberg-themed villain. Meanwhile, playwright Tilly Lunken and actress Kate Sketchley are currently working on a musical comedy-horror show called Undermined, which will tell the story of an underground civilisation threatened by a monstrous fatberg, to be brought to life through puppetry and sophisticated stagecraft.

We’ve worked on a lot of important jobs here at Lanes Group, but this is certainly the first to inspire its own stage musical, which really goes to show how big an impression the Monster of Whitechapel has made!

Improving awareness of a serious issue

It’s fantastic to see all the fun the public is having with the fatberg concept, but it’s even more important to acknowledge the positive impact of the work in terms of raising awareness of a very serious issue.

In the short term, the removal of this enormous blockage from the London sewers will have greatly improved drainage performance and reduced the risk of flooding, while the conversion of the fatberg mass into biodiesel is also a very positive step for renewable energy. However, it’s the growing public understanding of the underlying causes of fatbergs that could truly lead to the kind of long-term behavioural change we need to really make a difference; this is the goal of the Fatberg Fighters educational scheme we’ve been running for schools over the last few months, and it appears that progress is being made.

According to surveys conducted by Lanes Group into the public’s drainage habits and knowledge:

  • 61% of the British public have now heard of the term “fatberg”, up from 47% in September last year, just before the Whitechapel work began
  • 93% of those surveyed agree that more needs to be done to educate the public about the dangers of fatbergs and how to avoid them

Even more encouragingly, there is now evidence to suggest that this is leading to a better understanding of the behavioural changes needed to prevent fatbergs from developing:

  • 52% of those polled in July 2018 said they are very aware of the dangers of flushing wet wipes down the toilet, compared to only 38% last year
  • 64% recognise that no types of wet wipe can be considered flushable, up from 49% in 2017
  • Only 35% see wet wipes that wrongly advertise themselves as “flushable” as truly suitable for the toilet, down from 48% in 2018
  • 75% are quite aware or very aware of the risks posed by pouring fats and oils down the drain

The figures indicate that the fatberg issue is now starting to genuinely penetrate the public consciousness, in the same way that the environmental dangers of plastic bags and ozone-destroying aerosols have done in the past; this is the key to achieving lasting change, and it’s likely that we can at least partly thank the eye-catching horror of the Whitechapel fatberg for that!

More work to be done

Nevertheless, it’s also worth noting that there’s still a way to go before we can consider the fatberg menace to be truly conquered. Although our survey shows that awareness of the relevant issues is higher than ever, the data also indicates that many are still not doing what needs to be done to keep their drains clear of the substances that feed monster fatbergs.

For example:

  • 47% of those we surveyed say they have poured oil or fat generated from cooking down the kitchen sink – the same percentage as last year
  • 31% have flushed wet wipes down the toilet – down only slightly from 36% in 2017, and a smaller change than might be expected given the growing awareness of the issue

For all the positive progress that’s been made in the last year, these figures indicate that the battle hasn’t truly been won yet. This is why the FatCam is more than just an entertainingly gruesome curiosity – it will help to keep the public’s fatberg fascination alive and give people an ongoing reminder of the true consequence of improper waste disposal, which will hopefully inspire further action in the fight against the fatberg menace!

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