Unblocking Britain’s £90m sewer problem

Nick How asks: in our disposable society who should pay to keep the sewers flowing?

Water is considered good value by most consumers. Research shows that this is especially true when they stop to work out how much they pay per week, and realise the service they get for their money.

And householders generally compare the water bill favourably to the cost of other utilities.

Even so there are pertinent questions now being asked over who should pay for some of the water companies’ biggest outlays.

The fatberg nightmare

Ahead of the recent PR19 submissions water companies consulted customers on many issues, including their willingness to pay for different levels of performance commitments.

However these studies did not consider the bigger question of who should be paying for the costs currently being passed onto all bill-payers.

As the water sector comes under intense political scrutiny over its profits and investments, perhaps now is the time to look at that question more closely.

One of the biggest – and most expensive – challenges facing water companies is the build up of fat in the sewers.

So-called fatbergs are proliferating, and the cost of removing them is put at £88m per year. Thames Water alone estimate the annual cost at £12m. And it is the customer who pays, through their water bill.

These ‘bergs’ are predominately made up of fats from restaurants, takeaways and domestic homes. They are bound together by wet wipes and similar products, which many people misguidedly believe to be safe to flush down the toilet.

But the real cost of two major fatberg culprits – fast food outlets and wet wipes – is not borne by the businesses involved. They don’t pay extra to the water companies to clear up the mess they help create, nor do they pass on the cost to their customers, who instead get a cheaper product devoid of its full environmental cost.

Instead the cost is placed entirely onto the water companies – and ultimately paid by everyone in higher water bills, regardless of their own behaviour.

Prevention better than cure

Reactive solutions – such as sending teams down into the sewers to dig out the fatbergs – are expensive and an ongoing cost.

They do nothing to reduce the problem at the source. If anything, this work absolves others from the need to address the issue and take responsibility for their actions – including the companies causing so much of the problem.

Every water company is trying to educate their commercial and domestic customers, promoting good behaviour with marketing messages on what we should and shouldn’t pour down the drain or flush down the toilet.

But is this enough? Should we consider more persuasive ways to prevent fatbergs, rather than waiting to deal with the horrible consequences?

The Irish solution

Should the fast food producers be held more responsible? Photograph: Pixabay

Perhaps the Irish model offers an effective and lasting solution.

In 2008 Dublin City Council introduced a licence and inspection scheme for food outlets, centred on their disposal of fat, oil and grease. This has reduced sewer blockages from 1,000 to 50 a year.

The city’s last major fatberg blockage was more than five years ago.

Contrast Dublin’s experience with London – a recent survey showed 90% of eateries in the capital do not have effective grease traps.

Shouldn’t food outlets without such grease traps bear the cost of removing ‘bergs’ in their neighbourhoods?

Shouldn’t manufacturers of wet wipes and similar non-biodegradable products which are routinely flushed down the toilet contribute to the damage this causes?

It is time for a more radical nationwide approach to preventing this problem at source. By making those responsible pay for the cost of their behaviour, we can keep the system flowing while reducing the financial burden on water companies and their customers.

Nick How is a research director at Qa. Contact him at nick.how@qaresearch.co.uk or on 01904 632039

Photograph (top): Images Money on Flickr

Photograph (bottom): Hans on Pixabay

What we do

Qa Research undertakes a wide range of customer insight and research studies for water companies.

Core topic areas have focused on Attitudes to River Water Quality, Improving Bathing Water Quality, Evaluating Behaviour Change Campaigns (water saving initiatives and sewer blockage prevention), Testing New Billing Concepts and Designs, Evaluating Behaviours During Water Supply Interruption, Online Tool Development for Willingness to Pay Surveying and much more.