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London's Sewers Are Clogged With Massive Globs of Fat. Here’s Why It’s Hard to Get Rid of Them

“Fatbergs,” these vast bundles of congealed grease, are becoming the stuff of urban legend—but preventing their formation can be complex.
A sewer inspector removes fat from sewer wall in sewage pipe in London
A sewer inspector removes fat from sewer wall in sewage pipe in LondonLuke MacGregor/Reuters

If there’s an urban problem more disgusting than the fatberg, I don’t want to hear about it. Vast, monster lumps of congealed fat stuck together with a structure of used diapers, tampons, and wet wipes, these oily excrescences are increasingly clogging urban sewers in many countries. Just this week, readers across the world have been wincing afresh at this problem after the discovery of a gargantuan fatberg beneath the streets of East London. Weighing an incredible 140 tons, this fatberg is 10 times the size than the next-biggest British fatberg, discovered in southwest London in 2013— and that one was already the size of a bus. This berg will take a team of eight workers up to three malodorous weeks to remove it.

It’s not hard to see why this giant fatberg has grabbed so many international headlines: It’s the ultimate contemporary symbol of urban consumption gone wrong, a vast mass of cooking gloop stuck together with cast-offs of people too fancy to use regular toilet paper, ever-swelling within a creaking urban infrastructure designed to manage the problems of a bygone era.