Massive clogs of grease and debris in sewers – better known as fatbergs – have made headlines in major international centres, but the problem also hits close to home for smaller Canadian cities.
“This one we have to clean out every three or four weeks,” Fred Rackow said during a lift station tour in Regina’s east end.
The lift station supervisor has been working with wastewater systems for nearly two decades. While oils and fats continue to be an issue in the city’s sewers, he’s noticed the number of disposable wipes, sanitary products and cotton swabs being put down the pipes is on the rise.
“If you wipe up grease with a paper tower, you’ve got a wad,” Regina director of waste, water and environmental services Pat Wilson explained. “If you stuck it to something and it starts to dry a little bit, other things will catch against it and it just expands. That’s where you get those blockages they call fatbergs.”
Residents aren’t entirely to blame.
Many of these products are labeled as being flushable. Technically, they will go down the drain, but they don’t break down.
Clearing these clogs ends up costing the City between $300,000 to $500,000 every year.
Some of our lift stations have metre-long shelves of the hardened, concrete-like grease in them,” Rackow added. “There isn’t some magical chemical we can use or push a button and it gets done. You have to put somebody down in the muck and pull it out.”
The city wants to see a shift in labeling to better educate residents that may not know better.
“I think people take that quite seriously,” Wilson said. “They read the label that says it’s flushable and they believe they’re doing the right thing with it.”
University of Regina marketing associate professor Lisa Watson said companies are misleading customers by implying products are biodegradable.
“It started around what I like to call the ‘greenwashing’ phase in the early 2000s,” Watson said. “Everyone wanted their products to be sustainable, and with the desire to be sustainable, the ability to biodegrade was implied without it necessarily being the case.”
“You have to do quite a bit of homework and you have to be a very strong advocate of sustainable marketing to go that extra step to find out what is actually a legitimate claim and what is not.”
Once a claim like that is made, it’s difficult to take the label off of the product.
Watson said it would be up to the federal government to create tougher advertising guidelines to eliminate the misleading marketing.
In the meantime, consumers will have to change the habits themselves.