A data-led approach to clearing FOG
Water utilities have a major challenge working with local food businesses to prevent fats, oils and grease entering the sewer network, but a combined data and marketing approach could be the answer, SwiftComply founder and chief executive Michael O'Dwyer writes
Fats, oils and grease (FOG) in the sewer network are a £90 million a year headache for water utilities in England and Wales. While giant fatbergs get all the press coverage, there are hundreds and thousands of smaller blockages that the water companies are tasked with clearing day in, day out.
Growing urban populations and denser concentrations of food outlets, along with legacy sewer networks, are all contributing to FOG build-up in the network. And while larger food production facilities have to comply with environmental trade effluent regulations, unlike in the US and Ireland, no such rules exist for the 500,000 food service establishments (FSEs) in the UK.
In an ideal world, the problem would be solved if every FSE installed a grease-trap. Correctly sized, well-maintained equipment is the first step to prevention. Capturing FOG at source and at scale would also provide the opportunity to generate significant biofuel resources, providing a stimulus to circular economy initiatives.
SwiftComply is working closely with UK utilities in combined digital and face-to-face education and engagement programmes. One of the aims is to collate data to better understand the food businesses using the sewerage networks.
Yorkshire Water has partnered with SwiftComply and, with support from City of York Council, to deliver a food service engagement pilot in the York city area to tackle an increase in issues relating to FOG and fatbergs. SwiftComply will engage both digitally and physically with around 1,000 food businesses to assess and improve their onsite FOG management practices.
The project campaign will involve SwiftComply establishing and publishing a website and digital media campaign to engage with food businesses. Further to this, food businesses will be provided with the opportunity to opt into an onsite FOG Risk Audit, carried out by the SwiftComply team. Food businesses will be provided with a report detailing areas they can improve and reduce their FOG Risk, along with support to manage these changes.
Initially, above-ground data on the number of restaurants, their GPS coordinates, cuisine type and contact details are collected using specially designed cloud-based software. This information can then be expanded by finding out more about onsite FOG management from site visits, telephone interviews and digital questionnaires.
The questions being asked include: Is a grease-trap installed? Is it correctly sized and fit-for-purpose? How is it maintained? Where is the captured grease disposed to?
The data builds up a valuable resource for the utilities to tap into, facilitating much more robust decision-making around effective FOG education programmes with local business owners. The FSEs are also provided with digital and paper educational materials promoting best practice kitchen grease management.
This includes washing-up practices such as advice on the dry-wiping of greasy cookware, crockery and equipment, along with guidance on safe storage of waste oil, with the rule of thumb being to remove as much oily waste as possible before it comes into contact with water.
Steve Wragg, flood risk manager at City of York Council, says: “As a flood risk officer, I see first-hand what problems fat, oil and grease create on our sewer network system. We’re pleased to support this campaign with Yorkshire Water. Anything we can do to highlight the problems this causes, including fatbergs or other environmental damage, is a positive step.”
The historically light regulation of FSEs in the UK means water companies have a greater task in changing food business behaviour than in parts of the world where licensing for their discharges to sewerage exists. A useful step forward would be for water utilities to agree terms for a national standard on best practice in commercial kitchen grease management, so that all businesses are working to the same code.
The regulatory drive for cost efficiency in the water industry should lead to a nationwide utility-led grease prevention initiative, which would carry greater clout than localised schemes. With or without regulatory change, combined technology and marketing approaches like the one being trialled in York are ideally suited to addressing this complex and costly challenge.
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