Turkey FOG – it’s not that supposed tryptophan-induced Thanksgiving post-dinner coma that you, Grandpa, and everybody experiences after a heaping plate (or two) of a turkey-with-all-the-trimmings meal. That kind of turkey ‘fog’ can be remedied with a nap followed by a sweet slice of pecan pie to ground you back into your body.
No, this kind of turkey FOG is an acronym for the less-than-savory byproduct of a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal. This FOG includes, but is not limited to, the turkey, the drippings in the gravy, the buttery mashed potatoes and, if your family prefers the cheerful more contemporary version of a Thanksgiving turkey, the oil used to fry it in.
This is the story of FOG – fat, oil, and grease – and its destructive journey down your drain and through the sewage system.
FOG has made headlines in some places recently. Take London, for example. Enormous monster globs of FOG weighing tons are clogging up the pipelines and costing equally enormous globs of cash to mitigate. These FOG globs now have an actual name: fatbergs.
OK, so there are no official fatberg sightings in Marion or in Mattapoisett where a portion of residents receive municipal sewer service from the Fairhaven wastewater treatment facility. But FOG is still an issue, and it’s one that holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas can exacerbate with every other house cooking a turkey with gobs of gravy and all the other buttery, fatty, greasy delights.
From pouring turkey fat down the drain, to rinsing off greasy pots, pans, and plates in the sink, to even flushing old leftovers down the toilet – all of this contributes to FOG causing extra wear and tear on grinder pumps and clogging up the sewer lines with fat, oil, and grease and wreaking havoc in municipal sewer systems everywhere. In the United States, in fact, it accounts for 47 percent of the 32,000 sewer overflows every year.
Frank Cooper is Marion’s wastewater treatment plant supervisor, and he is an experienced FOG mitigator in his off-duty time. He says, although Thanksgiving (and Christmas) isn’t solely responsible for any immediate and observable uptick in FOG in the sewage system, all those turkeys and all that greasy gravy surely contribute to wastewater woe.
“There’s always grease,” says Cooper. “There’s always that kind of thing that’s a concern to us. It’s something that can be mitigated, but not eliminated.”
Cooper knows exactly what FOG can do to sewer pipes and grinder pumps, having had many years’ experience in the field of wastewater management, even long before he joined Marion.
Cooper lives in Mattapoisett, and while he is at home away from the wastewater treatment facility he runs, his respect for the system and how it works governs how he himself uses sewer service at home.
First, he never lets the grease run down the drain.
“If I fry in a pan, after it cools I take a paper towel and wipe it up and I throw it away in the trash,” he said. “You actively remove the grease before it goes down the drain.”
Bacon, steak… You can’t avoid that stuff entirely, but the bacon grease and steak fat – and Thanksgiving turkey oils – travel from your house where it meets up with your neighbor’s FOG and your neighbor’s neighbors’ FOG. Add all that in with the rest of the actual waste that belongs in the sewer line, including toilet paper but excluding pretty much everything else (including so-called ‘flushable’ wipes, another wastewater article topic entirely), it all mixes together and binds itself with FOG, making one big nasty mess.
In Marion, Cooper and his staff use different ways to emulsify or mitigate FOG in the lines. The preferred method is through the use of biology, employing trillions of microscopic bacteria to munch on and break down FOG buildup.
“We run a hose down the pipes to try to clean them out,” said Cooper. “Stuff gets bound up in grease, and now you’ve got a large slug of grease and materials all bound up and trying to get through a pump.”
At the wastewater treatment plant itself, there are further modes of mitigation of FOG to collect it and separate it from the clear water that will eventually flow to the outfall.
We know, all this wastewater talk isn’t exactly the most appetizing of topics leading up to the Thanksgiving Day feast, but wastewater, historically, isn’t the most soothing subject just before a town meeting, either. Wastewater treatment and sewer service costs money, and repairs add to that cost. So, ratepayers – you users of municipal sewer – the FOG begins with you, and it can stop with you.
Now, back to that Thanksgiving turkey…
“Let’s look at the meal itself. If I’m cooking a turkey dinner,” says Cooper (and yes, he has done that), you’re making gravy from the drippings.” After that, he added, “Even when people are done eating, you’ve got plates with a lot of grease on it.”
What does the responsible one do with that? They consciously reduce their FOG contribution. They soak the grease up with paper towels and toss them into the trash before washing the plates and dishes – with a non-powder dish detergent, by the way. Cooper said powder soap wreaks havoc on sewer lines, acting much like grease when it doesn’t fully dissolve before it goes down the drain.
One can also locate a local organization that welcomes used frying oil and recycles it into biofuel.
“When you make your mashed potatoes, let’s face it,” said Cooper. “There’s going to be some butter in there.”
And that spells F-O-G.
Over in Fairhaven, DPW Superintendent Vincent Furtado said pretty much the same as Cooper in Marion when it came to FOG concerns.
“Typically, even though there’s a lot of turkeys cooking at the same time, the plant has no issue handling grease generated from households,” Furtado said. “The only grease issues that we ever have in town do not occur at the treatment facility, but rather in the collection system where a sewer line will get blocked up from grease…” Especially from restaurants that cook with a lot of oils, he said.
But wait, you have a septic system so you don’t have to worry about dumping your drippings down the drain? False.
Much like a municipal system, your septic system is designed to break down waste and toilet paper, and not much else. FOGs can still accumulate precisely because it cannot be broken down. What’s more, the fat, oil, and grease build up in your plumbing and sewer line to the septic tank, potentially causing blockages before the grease even makes it to your septic tank.
We usually start things out by pouring fats and oils down the drain with warm water, but when the liquid cools, the grease and fats become a hardened mass.
The equation is simple, really: FOG + sewage waste = fatbergs
So, this Thanksgiving, when you’re pouring that glorious gravy and watching it flow down into mashed potato mountain valleys, stop for a second and think about FOG – fat, oils, and grease – and what you can do to keep it where it belongs … in your arteries, not in the sewer pipes.
By Jean Perry