The term fly-tipping may conjure images of fridges and sofas abandoned in lay-bys. But it also applies to the largely unseen problem of waste fats, oils and grease (FOG) being illegally tipped down the drain by food outlets.

As with other forms of fly-tipping, those responsible may think it simpler and cheaper to illegally tip FOG down the drain than to dispose of it legally. The result is blocked sewers, pumping station failures, flooding, pollution, odour and rats infestations, which cost an estimated £20M a year nationwide.

More than half of the 15,000 blockages a year in Anglian Water’s 44,000km of wastewater sewers are caused by FOG, which either builds up on sewer walls or binds to non-flushable items like wipes. Thirty per cent of pumping station failures are the result of blocked pumps.

It is the link between illegal disposal of FOG and fly-tipping that may also offer the best way of solving the problem, by encouraging closer working with local authority environmental health teams. The challenge is to persuade businesses that it makes legal and commercial sense to make sure that FOG does not enter the sewerage system.

One way to do that is through better enforcement. The higher the chance of being caught, the less likely people are to flout the law.

Restaurants and takeaways can lack clear advice about what to do with waste FOG, although simple steps like scraping and dry wiping grease and food waste from plates and pans into waste bins can reduce the problem. The law, however, is very clear. It is a criminal offence to discharge ‘any matter likely to injure the sewer or drain, to interfere with the free flow of its contents or to affect prejudicially the treatment and disposal of its contents’. Enforcing the law is not so simple.

Linking FOG in a sewer to the restaurant responsible can be hard and that makes bringing a prosecution difficult. And while water companies can inspect premises they believe to be the source of trade effluent in sewers, FOG is not considered trade effluent. This leaves companies with the option of sending warning letters, but these are little more than empty threats if they cannot be followed with legal action. By treating the tipping of FOG into drains as fly-tipping however, the powers of local authorities’ environmental health departments can be brought to bear.

Food hygiene inspections may not specifically mention FOG, but reducing its build-up is closely linked to good hygiene standards and to safeguarding public health. Under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 any business serving food must safely manage, store and legally dispose of waste, which includes used FOG.

This should be stored in a suitable secure container and collected regularly by an Environment Agency registered waste carrier. Each time FOG is collected, the food outlet must be given a copy of the Waste Transfer Note, or Duty of Care Note.

This must be kept on the premises for inspection by the local authority or the Environment Agency. Failure to produce a Waste Transfer Note when asked may result in a £300 on the spot fine.

In Chelmsford, Anglian Water already works closely with the borough council and the Environment Agency, on an awareness campaign explaining the connection between fly tipping and the illegal disposal of waste FOG. Such partnership working could show the way forward for the water industry as a whole.

The issuing of fines may be seen as proof that much remains to be done to educate food outlets on the correct way to dispose of FOG. In the meantime, however, they are an effective way to punish those who break the law and so endanger sewer systems and public health.

FOG is far from being an issue solely for water companies. Getting it under control brings major benefits to everyone through reduced sewer blockages and pollutions, fewer rats and far fewer customer complaints.

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