The Fatberg Phenomenon

To manage a risk, you have to understand it. The more complex a risk or set of risks, the harder it is to understand and manage those risks.  The global economy is massively complex and still not really understood.  Economists disagree about many fundamentals such as the causes of boom and bust, and then the believed relationship between inflation and unemployment (the Phillips Curve) no longer seems to hold.  Central Banks therefore have a difficult task in managing risks to their economies, frequently getting it wrong.

On a baser level, there are two main causes of blocked sewers in the UK: kitchen grease (people pouring liquid cooking fat down the sink which then solidifies in the sewers) and people wiping their bottoms with wet wipes rather than toilet tissue (for comfort, presumably).  Toilet tissue disintegrates in the sewers.  Wet wipes do not because they are held together by resin.  An apparently increasing trend in using wet wipes increases the risk of sewer blockage, especially when they get caught up in wedges of grease, thus forming “fatbergs” that block sewers and clog pumps.  90% of the more than 360,000 sewer blockages in the UK last year resulted from this phenomenon.  At least this risk is understood, and a Chinese company has developed a way of creating wet wipes without resin using a process called “hydro-entanglement” which takes the tissue fibres and messes them up so they maintain their shape through entanglement rather than being stuck together with resin.  If this goes into commercial production, it may reduce the risk of blocked sewers in the UK.

Story source: The Economist magazine

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