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The tip of the fatberg: Fatberg exhibit illustrates Melbourne’s bigger wet wipe obsession

Melbournians are flushing thousands of tonnes of wet wipes and rags down the toilet every year. A large fatberg donated by Yarra Valley Water to Melbourne Museum will show what happens when wet wipes combine with fat in the sewer system. 

Fatbergs cost Yarra Valley Water nearly $1 million each year largely as a result of the 650 tonnes of wet wipes and rags that customers flush down the toilet. These then congeal together with fats and oils people pour down the drain to create solid fatbergs. 

During any average week, Yarra Valley Water will retrieve almost 14 tonnes of wet wipes and rags from the sewer system. 

Yarra Valley Water Managing Director, Pat McCafferty said that having the fatberg on display in Melbourne Museum is part of the organisation’s wider push for people to stop flushing wet wipes down the toilet. 

“A lot of wet wipes are marketed as ‘flushable’ but this is very misleading because they don’t decompose. It would actually take about six months for a wet wipe to decompose naturally. 

“We work really hard to retrieve wet wipes from the sewer but we do still sometimes get a build-up of them which can cause sewer blockages, inconveniences to customers and harm to the environment. When combined with the fats and oils that people pour down the drain, the fatberg is born,” Mr McCafferty said.

The Water Services Association of Australia estimates that blockages contributed to mainly by wet wipes are costing the urban water industry in Australia over $15 million each year. 

Wet wipe blockages can also cause highly expensive plumbing problems for households with some reporting plumbing bills of $1000 because of wet wipes. 

Melbournians can see the real-life fatberg in all its glory as part of Melbourne Museum’s ‘Gut Feelings’ exhibition. The fatberg is a 10 per cent sample of the fatberg it was taken from and offers a behind-the scenes look of what goes on in Melbourne’s sewers.

Museum Victoria’s Senior Curator of Human Biology and Medicine, Doctor Johanna Simkin explained how the fatberg reflects two of the biggest health problems facing us today: rising obesity levels and obsessive over-cleanliness.

“The fatberg is indicative of the fat and processed foods in our diets, contributing to the obesity epidemic. The anti-bacterial wet-wipes also help to illustrate our obsessive hyper-cleanliness, which, according to the hygiene hypothesis, may be responsible for the modern increases in allergies and other immune disorders.

“Encountering some dirt in childhood can help train our immune system—particularly the protective T-cells—to recognise bad bacteria and incorporate good bacteria. Our obsession with trying to be too clean and kill 99.9 per cent of germs on ourselves and all surfaces could actually disrupt this training and lead to a weakened immune system.”

Tips for customers to avoid wet wipe blockages and fatbergs in the sewer system:

  • Only pee, poo and toilet paper should be flushed.
  • Wet wipes should go in the bin – even ones that say they are biodegradable. This also goes for sanitary products, nappies and condoms.
  • Put oils, fats and food scraps in the bin, rather than down the sink.
  • Small amounts of household cleaners and detergents are fine in the sewer — but don't flush or wash harsher chemicals such as paint down the drain.