Wait, What Was So Monstrous About Fatberg?

A sample of fatberg, a brown mass that almost looks like a large, lumpy rock, and filled with debris and waste, sits atop a Black foam display in a museum.

Unbeknownst to many, beneath the surface, an intricate network of calcified entanglements emerges, encapsulating fragments of our material history from both past and present, woven together by the mundane acts of flushing, washing, and draining.

Called fatberg, this mass of entanglements is a congealed lump of fat, grease, oil, wet wipes, poop and pee, and everything that is flushed down the toilet or washed away down the drain. These blockages of fat within sewer systems undergo a chemical process known as saponification, interacting with the inner lining of pipes and transforming into a solid mass resembling a rock-like mess.

If it sounds disgusting, it is because it is. One of the largest and most famous fatbergs was found under the streets of Whitechapel, London. This calcified blockage was 130-tonne strong and 250-metre long. Two samples extracted from this behemoth were put on display and preserved within the Museum of London’s archives.

The Whitechapel fatberg caught media attention and ignited a public frenzy. Vyki Sparkes, the curator of the exhibition, described fatberg as the portrait of Dorian Gray that “shows our disgusting side,” “hidden away” and getting uglier “as we pile the accumulated sins of the city into it.[1] This celebrity blockage also became a sensational headline, often referred to as a “monster,” symbolising the wasteful habits of our throwaway age.[2]

The exhibition captured fascination and public imaginaries of the monster’s grossness. Hazmat suits displayed at the entrance welcomed visitors into the quest of conquering a sewer monster. The walls were adorned with biohazard warning signs, showcasing quotes from the courageous “flushers” who valiantly battled the horrific obstacle. In the back of the showroom, two samples of fatberg resided in a dimly lit sanctuary. Caged in specially-designed containers, they were still sweating, moulding, and spawning flies, maintaining an unsettling presence despite their captive state.

I, too, found myself captivated by the repulsive nature of fatbergs. It is undeniable that fatbergs are both extraordinary and repugnant. However, the perceived ugliness they allegedly embody seems to stem more from the regime of cleanliness rather than inherent dirtiness. Cooking fats, body greases, soaps, and lotions often have no means of disposal other than being washed down the drain. Flushable wet wipes have become increasingly indispensable in the daily lives of many individuals, partly due to marketing efforts and partly due to their functional benefits.[3] Accidental flushing of tampons is not uncommon, as alternative menstrual hygiene products that are less prone to causing messes are not accessible to everyone. Much of what contributes to the formation of calcified fatbergs, supposedly reflecting the darker side of modern life, has no destination other than the underground pipes, flushed and washed away in the immediacy of the moment.

Sociologists John Tomlinson attributed immediacy—an immediate tempo—mainly to the role of technology in eliminating distances.[4] He argued that immediacy can be understood as a quality of a culture characterised by ubiquitous availability and instant gratification of desires, like instant telecommunication and media technology. Thinking with the fatberg, I examine how this idea of immediacy is expressed by the instant temporal distancing in the context of sewerscape—a socio-cultural-technological matrix of sewerage and drainage.

The modern sewage system functions as an extensive network of infrastructure, interwoven with the necessities of hygiene, numerous hygiene products, daily cleaning routines, and amenities. The materiality of toilets, sinks, washing machines, drainage—carefully planned and built between walls and underground—makes sewerscape radically different from “throwing away.” The usual acts of collection, accumulation, separation, and qualification of trash become obsolete in this realm. This way, it is hard to contend the idea that fatberg is a product of a throwaway age.

It is important to recognise that the sewerscape is deeply influenced by socio-economic stratification. In many parts of the world, the development of sewerage systems remains a work in progress or even a luxury. Before the advent of modern sewerage systems, managing excrement was a messy affair. Understanding the true grotesqueness of fatbergs requires considering the historical context of the birth of the modern sewage system in London. This perspective sheds light on the interconnectedness between the emergence of the sewerscape and our comprehension of fatbergs.

Before the late nineteenth century, waste management relied on wealth and social status, making it a privilege rather than a public necessity. Communal cesspools were used but emptied sporadically due to the expensive and repulsive nature of the service. Despite regulations, overflow and neighbourly conflicts were common. Those without amenities resorted to tossing excrement out of windows.[5] For the upper class in Victorian London, the idea of cleanliness was more of a performance of decorum and status than of hygiene concern. Their “fecal denial”—that excrements should not be touched, seen, heard and smelled—engendered a range of socio-technical tactics to distance themselves from their own waste. Furnitures were designed to visually and olfactory conceal chamber pots. Medicines were available for Victorian ladies to clear themselves before attending social events as there were usually no toilets available in the venues.[6]

Everyday coordination with waste and excrements operated in such erratic rhythm until the Great Stink, in the summer of 1858. A cholera outbreak and months-long putrid stench of the river Thames eventually led to the construction of an extensive drainage and sewer system between 1859 and 1865, led by engineer Joseph Bazalgette. His design utilised water as the primary transport medium, ensuring waste from household toilets was swiftly carried away through pumping or gravitational flow. The instantaneous displacement of waste after flushing was secured as the thoughtful system maintained a constant effluvial flow to avoid stagnation and accumulation—waste is always on the move. The sewers were designed in egg shape with a narrow end downwards that served as a self-cleansing mechanism. At the same time, amenities like toilets and drains were mandated to be built for the working class. The planning of the sewer system also took care of clean water supply to avoid cross-contamination.

Turning from an exclusive privilege and social decorum to a matter of public welfare and hygiene necessity, water closets, drains and sewers systems formed highly specialised and regulated infrastructural conventions that dictate what habits are considered hygienic. The city-wide sewer system was not only an engineering marvel but also a hallmark of public health imperative. It also laid the foundation for a new temporal orientation, shaping society’s perception and relationship with waste that can be flushed or drained away. The infrastructural network turned into the pervasive matrix of sewerscape that informs social, cultural and technological practices and is continuously hardwired into new buildings to exercise the immediate expulsion of waste.

As the sewerage construction was underway, London also saw its subway system and river embankment in the pipeline in the mid-nineteenth century. The constructions frequented newspaper headlines as public spectacles as well as nuisance. In this way, these projects transformed London’s daily rhythm of commuting as well as defecating, in both social and technological terms, and synchronised the city that was divided by class and filth. The story of London’s sewer system serves as a testament to its significance as a socio-cultural-technological matrix, forming an intrinsic part of the pervasive sewerscape that sustains the city’s everyday rhythm.

A manhole cover depicting the words, "The Whitechapel Fatberg was defeated here in 2017" encircling text that reads "Thames Water."
Fatberg memorial manhole cover installed by Thames Water in Whitechapel, London; Wikimedia.
[Image description: A square manhole cover with a circular design. The middle reads “Thames Water” and along the outside between two circles of dots, “The Whitechapel Fatberg Was Defeated Here In 2017.”]

In the present day, the sewerscape continues to evolve. Laws regulate the positioning of pipes to ensure a steady flow of sewage. The pristine, porcelain appearance of toilet bowls symbolises the aspiration of a well-functioning and hygienic system that renders filth invisible. Consider the artefacts associated with the sewerscape—such as toilet paper, flushable wet wipes, touch sensors, and water-soluble detergents—they are all designed to vanish as soon as they are flushed, creating an immediate separation from waste and fostering a sense of instant cleanliness. This notion of hygiene, facilitated by the sewerage system, represents both a moral ideal and a hygiene imperative. It is embodied in the rapid rhythm of waste disposal, practised and obligatory each time these amenities are utilised. Flushable hygiene products, a significant component of fatbergs, thus carry more than just convenience; they bear the weight of hygiene necessity, urgency, and social responsibility.

The disruption caused by fatbergs extends beyond their repulsive nature. They challenge and defy the established underground regime of hygiene, cleanliness, and our perceived control over waste. This disruption becomes evident as we flush and wash away, only to be confronted by the presence of the monstrous fatberg.[7]

The two samples of fatberg in the museum were carefully displayed in the sensorium for the eyes to meet the mind—a filthy monster that is now in control. Quoting one of the workers, the exhibition states, “our work is finished. And the beast finally defeated.” The rest of the Whitechapel fatberg was cleared after weeks of work with high pressure water jet and honest hand-digging. Ultimately, they were transported to the treatment plant like any other sewage, ready to be carried away.

Bringing infrastrutralised immediacy into the regime of hygiene opens up new lines of inquiry into our relationship with waste, technology, and the evolving idea of cleanliness—consider for example face masks and mandatory hand sanitisers. The idea of the monstrous fatberg, as revealed through the tale of the sewerscape, may initially seem instinctive, but it emerges as a reflection of how the sewerage system and its associated artefacts designed, developed, and gradually became integrated into our everyday lives, becoming the “normal.”

[1] Vyki Sparkes, “Fatberg! Exhibiting the Monster of Whitechapel,” Museum of London (February 6, 2018).

[2] Stephen Moss, “Don’t Feed the Fatberg! What a Slice of Oily Sewage Says about Modern Life,” The Guardian (February 18, 2018); “‘Monster’ Whitechapel Fatberg Unveiled at London Museum,” BBC News (February 8, 2018).

[3] Most wet wipes are marketed as flushable as they can be physically flushed down the toilet bowl. This, however, does not necessarily mean that they can travel smoothly in the sewage system and disintegrate in the process.

[4] John Tomlinson, The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, Theory, Culture & Society (Los Angeles , CA; London: SAGE, 2007).

[5] Stephen Halliday, The Great Stink of London: Sir Joseph Bazalgette and the Cleansing of the Victorian Metropolis (New York: History Press, 2013).

[6] Dave Praeger, Poop Culture: How America Is Shaped by Its Grossest National Product (Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 2007).

[7] Timothy Morton discussed the Away as an ontological space where unwanted substances are flushed down to another dimension, see Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016).

*Cover image: A sample of fatberg displayed in the Museum of London, Wikimedia.

[*Cover image description: A sample of fatberg, a brown mass that almost looks like a large, lumpy rock, and filled with debris and waste, sits atop a Black foam display in a museum.]

Edited by Morgan P. Vickers, reviewed by Evelyn Ramiel.

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