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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel

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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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Why You Should Never Flush Dental Floss Down the Toilet
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Dental floss may be good for our teeth, but it’s bad for our sewer systems—which is why you should never flush the stringy product down the toilet.

Home toilets are designed with our convenience and hygiene in mind, but some people have taken to using them as de facto trash cans, flushing wet wipes, paper towels, feminine products, and other items. While gone from your bathroom in the blink of an eye, these waste products don’t just disappear into some magical abyss: They end up mucking up our pipes and pumps, causing problems at wastewater treatment plants and, in some extreme cases, merging with congealed oils, grease, fat, and waste to form noxious blobs called fatbergs.

Meanwhile, some wastewater treatment plant employees claim to have discovered everything from baseballs to cash to underwear—indicating that people are flushing far more than just household and sanitary products.

Compared to the objects above, dental floss—which is made from thin strands of nylon or Teflon—seems like it should be the least of any sewage worker’s concerns. And as you ready for bed, it’s probably far easier to toss your floss into the toilet than to remember to regularly empty the tiny trash can under your sink.

But since dental floss isn’t biodegradable, it doesn’t dissolve in its watery grave. Instead, it can combine with clumps of hair, toilet paper, wipes, sanitary products, and other gross stuff to form large clumps that clog sewers and pumps, sanitary companies told HuffPost. These blobs can also combine with tree roots and grease, cause sewage spills, and harm the motors in septic systems.

These instances aren't just inconvenient, they're also costly, as they result "in the need for local agencies that own and operate sewer systems to spend more money on maintenance to keep the sewers and pumps clear,” a spokesperson for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County told HuffPost.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t floss regularly, but from here on out, the only things you should be flushing down the toilet are human waste and toilet paper.

For a clear idea of what other kinds of things shouldn’t be going down our drains, check out the video below, which was created by the City of Spokane Department of Wastewater Management and shared in partnership with the Water Environment Federation.

[h/t The Huffington Post]

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A Simple Way to Prevent Bed Bugs: Do Your Laundry While on Vacation
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Bed bugs are perhaps nature's worst house guests. Not only do they, y'know, feed on your blood while you sleep, but the critters also mysteriously sneak their way into our abodes without warning, only to turn around and invite all their friends over for a slumber party. Since they won't be dissuaded by an empty fridge or an expired HBO subscription, what steps can one take to ensure their home stays free of these dreaded visitors?

For starters, do your laundry while traveling, according to a new study spotted by Gizmodo. Published in the journal Scientific Reports, its authors found that bed bugs are twice as likely to convene on and inside tote bags with dirty clothes as those containing clean clothes. They discovered this after creating a mock bedroom with cotton laundry bags—one filled with "dirty" worn clothing, the other with clean items—and observing which of the two a cageful of unleashed bed bugs preferred.

Researchers know that bed bug populations have surged around the world thanks in part to the rise of cheap air travel. They also have theorized that they're attracted to human scent, which can linger on clothing for at least a few days. Still, they didn't quite know how, exactly, the critters make the jump from the outside world and into our abodes—especially since these insects are relatively sedentary and rarely leave their feeding places. These new findings suggest that the bugs could be stowing away in attractive-smelling suitcases—which after traveling through hotels, airports, and taxis, end up right back in our bedrooms.

Since some bugs, like mosquitos, are attracted to carbon dioxide (it indicates the exhalation of a nearby animal or human—a.k.a. a food source), researchers checked to see if increases of the gas made bed bugs more or less likely to congregate on the dirty laundry bags. This ended up prompting foraging behavior, but the insects weren't any more prone to hanging out on the soiled clothing heap than they were before. 

Keeping your luggage free of bed bugs while traveling can be relatively simple, study author William Hentley, an entomologist at the UK's University of Sheffield, told Science. Since not everyone has ready access to a washer and dryer on vacation, avoid the bugs in the first place by placing your suitcase atop the metal luggage racks commonly found in hotel rooms, even if you've already given the room a precautionary sweep. (Bed bugs can't climb up smooth surfaces.) If your room is sans rack, seal your dirty clothes inside an airtight bag to keep the insects from getting a good whiff, or wrap up your entire suitcase if it's frequently been home to unwashed garments in the past.

That said, not all is lost if you arrive home from a long vacation with a bag full of well-worn outfits. Take your clothes immediately to a washer/dryer and run them through a hot cycle. That should be enough to kill invading bed bugs before they've even had the chance to learn how comfortable your couch is.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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