Tag Archives: FOGs

The Trouble with Food Scraps

The recent publication of GMWEA’s first “Don’t Flush It!” brochure sparked a lively discussion about food scraps among wastewater and solid waste management professionals.  Should be they be flushed or processed in in-sink disposal units — and thus allowed into septic tanks or municipal wastewater systems?

The brochure, “Cloggers!”, identifies materials that typical households flush or pour into their septic/sewer systems – fats, oils, and greases, along with solid items – that clog tanks, pumps, and pipes.

Food scraps proved to be the most nuanced of these materials, due to two, contradictory, characteristics:

1. They are valuable!  They contain sequestered nutritional value, energy, and money, and their value can still be recovered even after the scraps leave your kitchen. (The average American household throws away about $1,600 worth of food every year!) 

2. They are problematic!  Stored improperly, they can grow pathogens, stink, attract  pests, and generate greenhouse gases; flushed, they contribute to clogs in private septic systems and  municipal wastewater plants.

The issue is especially urgent in that Act 148, Vermont’s Universal Recycling & Composting Law, bans the disposal of food in landfills as of July 1, 2020.

What are we to think? Chittenden Solid Waste recently offered this view:

“. . . Don’t look at your garbage disposal for answers—Just ask the folks who manage wastewater treatment plants and witness the repercussions of putting the wrong things down the drain.

“’Organic overload is a concern in septic tanks as well as in wastewater treatment systems,’ says Jim Jutras, Water Quality Superintendent at the Water Resource Recovery Facility in Essex, Vt. ‘Another concern is “hydraulic overload,” where home septic systems and municipal systems . . . accumulate material that can cause trouble, such as “flushable” wipes, grease, and food scraps. This can result in costly repairs or sewage overflows.’

“Some residences don’t have their own system, but do connect directly to a municipal wastewater treatment plant, via pump stations, which require regular maintenance due to the increase in food scraps and ‘flushables’ that can hang up in the pump and cause backups and sewer overflows.

“. . . The bottom line: Drains and garbage disposals are not the solution for handling your food scraps. Public and private water systems, especially older ones, are not designed to handle much more than human waste from your toilet, rinse water from the kitchen sink, or bath/shower water. Even items marketed as ‘flushable’ can cause problems.”

However, Jeff Wennberg, Commissioner of Public Works in Rutland, offers this cautionary “minority report”:

“One-half of the dwelling units in Rutland City are rental units. The vast majority are multi-family homes and most of those do not have the homeowner residing in the home. In nearly all of these cases there is no yard to speak of (Rutland is only 7 square miles and 85% developed). The idea that absentee landlords are going to persuade renters to use composters in the apartment or on-site is totally unrealistic. Compliance with mandatory on-site composting will be 20% to 25% City-wide at best.”

Wennberg’s concern for compliance rates – and for petroleum used in transporting food waste to centralized composting or biodigestion facilities – is validated by past Vermont experiences in Zero Waste and post-consumer food-waste value optimization. 

What’s a householder to do?Fortunately, there are ways to avoid flushing food waste and to soften the edges of our hard choices. Again, thanks are due to CSWD for articulating some alternatives.

1. Store food better – buy smart and fine-tune your fridge

2. Donate food – plan your consumption, give excess to Vermont’s many hunger-fighting programs

3. Feed animals – get to know your local chicken and pig farmers

4. Digest it – compost it yourself, or find a neighbor who does

5. Recover energy – not yet an option in Vermont, but rather a systemic goal to strive for.

CSWD offers more excellent advice at  www.cswd.net/reduce-and-reuse/reducing-food-waste/

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.

GMWEA Wins Public Education Grant!

GMWEA recently won a $9,860 grant from the Lake Champlain Basin Program (LCBP) to help inform Vermont citizens about what we can do to reduce pollution in Lake Champlain. 

We can do a lot – provided we have the right information.

Most of us are familiar with the damaging effects of phosphate pollution, and with the e. coli contamination that sometimes closes beaches.  Unfortunately, our contribution of pollutants doesn’t end there.

Here’s a troubling, but illustrative fact: In a study conducted in 2016 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,  60% to 75% of the male smallmouth bass in the Mississquoi River were found to have both male and female genitals.  Their impaired reproductive function has potentially disastrous effects on the aquatic ecosystem.

Researchers say the deformity is probably due to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, particularly those mimicking estrogen, with the lead suspect being the herbicide atrazine – a common ingredient in consumer lawn and garden products.

Unfortunately, weed-killers are by no means the only ecologically-harmful chemicals a typical household contributes. Many can be found in common household products loosely grouped under the name PPCPs – pharmaceuticals and personal-care products.  The average Vermonter flushes, pours, or washes off these pollutants, and they enter the inflows of our wastewater treatment systems.  Some break down and become inert, but too many end up lingering – invisible, but harmful – in our natural waters.

If even our high-tech municipal systems can’t remove them, our only remedy is to  prevent them from entering the water in the first place.  That means we citizens need to learn better habits of product use and disposal.

The LCBP grant, funded by the U.S. EPA and administered through New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Council (NEIWPCC), will allow GMWEA to develop a series of four informational brochures, to be sent to every city and town in Vermont.  Delivered to ratepayers with water/sewer bills, the brochures – along with website/blog postings and other media coverage – will inform Vermont households about how to reduce use of ecosystem-damaging chemicals and how to dispose of them properly. 

PPCPs, such as antibiotics, antimicrobials, antidepressants, birth control pills, skin creams, insect repellent, hair dyes, and laundry products are only part of the problem.  Bacon grease and other kitchen fats clog wastewater pipes and pumps, especially when combined with “flushable” wipes, Q-tips, and tampons, reducing system efficiency and costing money in repairs.  Chemicals used in the garage and yard – degreasers, solvents, antifreeze, fertilizers, insecticides, weed-killers (such as atrazine) — also end up in storm drains or runoff and wreak havoc in rivers and lakes.  

During the next year, every city, town, household, and individual will receive tips on how to avoid polluting our shared waterways.  With this basic know-how, you can cut your input of the damaging chemicals.

Current plans call for the first brochures to be sent in May, and the initiative is expected to culminate in March, 2020.  GMWEA will contact municipal authorities to facilitate distribution in coming months, but if you’re a facility operator, town manager, DPW administrator, teacher, or ratepayer, you’re welcome to contact us sooner.  We’d love your help in getting the word out!

Thanks are due to our fiscal agent, Vermont League of Cities and Towns; to the Lake Champlain Basin Program; to New England Interstate Pollution Control Council; and to the U.S. EPA, original source of the funding.

Note: This post has been edited since its first publication to provide better information on the 2016 U.S. Fish and Wildlife study.

Click here to return to GMWEA’s website.

Flushed!

On November 20, WCAX-3’s “News at 5:30” gave viewers an uncomfortable glimpse of what happens when they use their sinks and toilets as trash disposals. Kudos to WCAX for its willingness to show images of “The gross truth about what’s lurking in the sewer.”

Reporter Jennifer Costa interviewed Matt Dow, director of Burlington’s Main, North, and East Wastewater plants. Dow spoke candidly about the difficulty – and cost – of coping with congealed fats in Burlington’s 50 miles of sewer lines and in its treatment facilities.

Dow said the problem is compounded by so-called “flushable” paper-fiber products such as hand wipes, baby wipes, and sanitary pads. Contrary to advertising, they don’t dissolve rapidly, if at all. When combined with the fats, oils, and greases (FOGs) in the system, they can congeal, cause blockages, and impede the process of wastewater treatment.

WCAX’s article is indicative of  growing public awareness about  the problem throughout the country. A quick Google search brings up 300,000 news items about “fatbergs” — a new vernacular term referring to the huge masses of FOGs that too often accumulate in  sewer systems — including over 59,000 videos. Most are public service videos produced by water quality nonprofits and municipal governments, intended to improve public knowledge of the infrastructure beneath their feet and to suggest ways citizens can reduce their contribution to water pollution, particularly FOGs and flushables. (Above: A FOG/”flushable” clog, photo courtesy of Burlington Public Works Dept.)

As public awareness grows, people are starting to take action. “Flushables” are adding such a maintenance burden to public systems – costing the public many millions of tax dollars – that citizens’ groups in New York, Washington D.C., and other cities have launched class action suits against “flushables” manufacturers.

Vermont municipalities can keep the PR momentum going by using their websites and newsletters to inform customers about the problem and to provide tips on solving it. Burlington Public Works Department, for example, provides an online guide to help consumers reduce their FOG output: https://www.burlingtonvt.gov/DPW/Grease-Management

It’s time to get the information out there. As Matt Dow summed it up, “People have to care.”

Thanks again to Matt Dow, Jennifer Costa, and WCAX-3! To see the whole feature, go to: http://www.wcax.com/content/news/Flushed-How-what-goes-down-can-really-mess-things-up-458906083.html

As always, GMWEA welcomes your contribution to this blog! If you have questions about or experience with fatbergs and flushables, please leave a comment here.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here: www.gmwea