So you've heard of fatbergs, the foul masses of grease and ‘unflushable items’ that regularly clog London’s antiquated sewer systems. But did you know that the same issues plague the Thames? Right now, there’s a gigantic island of old wet wipes near Hammersmith Bridge, that’s 1.4 metres thick and covers the area of two tennis courts.
But how did this gross mass of wet wipes even end up there? Aren’t sewage treatment plants meant to filter out all the yucky stuff before waste water gets tipped back into our streams and rivers? Well, kind of. Buckle up, because it’s time to learn about a fun kind of valve called a combined sewer overflow (CSO). Currently, rainwater from London’s streets gets funnelled into the same Victorian sewage system as the wastewater from our kitchens and toilets. And this Victorian sewage system has a limited capacity. So when we have a bout of wet weather, the CSOs are activated so that they release diluted sewage directly into the Thames – otherwise, there's a risk that the overloaded pipes could back up and flood the homes of unsuspecting Londoners. Ugh.
Help is at hand – work is currently underway on the high-capacity Thames Tideway Tunnel, a new ‘supersewer’ designed to keep London homes safely excrement-free for the next century. But you can play your part too, by binning wet wipes instead of flushing them. Handy as they are, wet wipes are made of up to 75% polyester, and can take more than 100 years to break down. The polyester fibres also harm marine life: if animals and fish eat them, they feel full without getting any nutrition, which can lead to starvation.
For now, the race is on to get down to Hammersmith, and declare ‘Wetwipe Island’ an independent nation state: what it lacks in aesthetics it more than makes up for in affordability and attractive river views. Or if you’re not ready to take up residence quite yet, then just take home a small, soiled wet wipe as a souvenir – and a potent reminder not to flush anything down the toilet except wee, poo and bog roll.