Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cutting Through the FOG

My dishwasher broke a couple of weeks a ago. Luckily, the machine was under warranty, and the repair was pretty easy. The guy simply had to unhook the tubing at the back, and clear the clog that had accumulated in the drain piece.

My family stood like drivers passing an accident scene and rubbernecked while he worked. It was gross and yet fascinating. The repair guy requested a bucket. We obliged, and then watched as the goo splurged and gurgled outward in thick, smelly, blackish abundance. Yuck… whewwie!...the smell was so bad, my kids had to run out of the kitchen holding their noses.

The thing is, we clear our plates pretty well. We aren’t going into the kitchen with whole cakes to put in the dishwasher, like that ad they used to have on tv a few years back.

“Oh,” the repair guy said, seeming like a professorial surgeon standing over a patient undergoing open heart surgery. “This goo here, this is mostly grease and stuff. Gravy, sauce, butter. All that. It builds up.”

All this brought me to think back to something that people who work on clean water issues have been saying lately. Namely, the pipes in our water system are a lot like the little tube at the back of my dishwasher, or the arteries of the human heart. When we put fats, oils and grease down the drain, we are causing some major problems in water infrastructure of the US.

According the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), when liquids such as grease and oil are poured down the drain, they can quickly harden on the inside of the pipes which carry waste water from our homes. This can cause a back up of sewage and waste water into the house, which is very expensive and messy to fix.

Theses liquids also imperil efforts to achieve clean water in the region. When those big pipes get clogged, sewer overflows occur, which can then lead to untreated sewage entering creeks and rivers. Such pollution is an-all-too common problem all over the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

And fats, oils and grease (known collectively as FOG) are no small problem elsewhere, either. According to the North Carolina Department of Environment’s fact sheet on the topic, over one third of 1999 sanitary sewer overflows in that state were the result of pipe blockages from FOG accumulation.

Like I said before, I thought that we were pretty good in our house about emptying, scraping and cleaning our plates, but the dishwasher breakdown event made me realize we still weren’t doing all we could to address the issue. Tooling around on different websites, I found some great tips which could help us do a better job. Many of these seemed like they’d be especially timely for the holidays, since making a big feast can cause a lot of excess grease to suddenly show up in your kitchen.

Can the grease.
Am I dating myself if I say that I can recall the days when my parents and grandparents all used to save fat in a coffee can under the sink? This used to be a common kitchen practice until the widespread installation and use of home garbage disposals made people think it was okay to pour grease and fat down the sink every day. Everyone was also eschewing fat in their diets, so there was no longer a need to save lard for cooking and baking. Now WSSC is asking us all to return to this practice, not because they think we need to make biscuits from scratch, but because by pouring the grease into a can, sealing it with a lid and throwing it away in the trash we can avoid clogging up the sewer lines. (Some communities are also encouraging the active recycling of the stuff for industrial purposes, although I know of no such program in our area for homeowners.)

Remember that FOG problems are not just caused by lard.

FOG is not just caused by the fat from things like bacon. Food scraps, margarine, butter, baked goods, sauces, yogurt and ice cream break down in water and the fats and oils are released. So when you are tempted to simply send chunks of food down the garbage disposal (even via the dishwasher), think twice and throw it away in the trash can. WSSC also asks homeowners to also not pour liquid foods down the drain including milk, milk shakes or syrups, batters, and gravy for this reason.

Take only what you can really eat in the first place.

This is one of the simplest environmental steps we can all take to reduce trash and prevent sewer blockages. At a time when portions at restaurants seem designed for elephant appetites, this is a real cultural challenge for Americans. But it can reduce waste on many levels… less trash accumulates but it also takes less energy to cook smaller meals. Less FOG in the pipes, too.

I personally find this is the biggest hurdle for my family to overcome, because it seems that my kids sometimes race to see who can pile their plate higher without any regard to the actual hunger they feel in their stomachs. (This is really one of those bizarre examples of sibling rivalry, where it sometimes is all about making sure your brother or sister is not getting a bigger dinner than you, even when you don’t like the food and you aren’t hungry.)

My kids, who have both been brought up to honor Earth Day and do things like reduce, reuse and recycle since birth were shocked recently when I pointed out that taking too much food was like not composting, or refusing to recycle paper, or not bringing reusable bags to the grocery store. They had simply never thought of it that way.

So we’ve decided to make it part of our Thanksgiving this year; instead of seeing how much we can eat, we’re aiming to see how little we can waste. Take only what you can finish. Share the rest. It’s a nice way to show you are grateful.

Frankly its also a nice way to prevent more dishwasher breakdowns and save money at the grocery store, even though saying so might not really capture the holiday spirit. I mean, money is tight and I know how expensive sewer breakdowns can be. I just probably won’t point that out while everyone’s sitting around feasting on turkey.

For more information about FOG problems, you can visit the WSSC website.

(This article originally appeared in the November issue of the Voice newspapers of Takoma Park and Silver Spring.)

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