This morning, as I was getting ready for work, I noticed that an acquaintance of mine had sent me a request to like his page, where he promoted the use of grease interceptors in order to help companies address the fats, oils, and greases that they use so that they do not overburden local utilities and lead to problems with pipe and sewer systems through the creation of fatburgs made up of these fats, oils, and greases along with items like wet wipes which do not dissolve and which merely collect over time into a giant mass of gross fat. Being someone who has no particular hostility to talking about gross and unpleasant things, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss fatburgs and what they say about contemporary Western society, as well as the essential ways such unsightly and unpleasant phenomena can be dealt with in a sensible fashion as a case study of the impact of personal habits and business practices on the well-being of society and its infrastructure as a whole.
My interest in fats, oils, and greases goes back a long way. Perhaps not surprisingly, it springs from my youth growing up in rural Central Florida. A few brief stories should suffice. Growing up, I would regularly see the sign for a local restaurant that advertised peanut oil fried chicken, which actually tastes pretty good, I must admit, if a bit unusual where I grew up. Occasionally as a child, my mother would buy Church’s Fried Chicken (a leading cause of arteriosclerosis), and my brother and I would wrap the chicken in napkins before eating them to drain some of the grease, which would make the napkins transparent as well as soggy because the chicken was so greasy. I remember thinking even then that if that grease had not been on the napkins than it would be inside me *sighs*. Long before I would have my own internal fatburg, I was aware of the essential conundrum of eating greasy foods, and that was either that the grease would be something that would have to be dealt with in the external environment or it is something that would be ingested and have to be dealt with internally. Our society lacks little when it comes to the internal presence of fat within many of us (myself included), and that is something that people struggle against through efforts at changing diet and increasing exercise. It is worthwhile, though, to examine what happens to the fat that one has to deal with in that external environment, which is where fatburgs come in.
In discussions about grease interceptors and continual cautions about not trying to flush the wrong sort of items down the drain or toilet, it is taken as a given that there is a lot of fat, oil, and grease for us to deal with. And of course this is the case, as any look at our diet will demonstrate. Even when we know that fatty and greasy foods are not very good for us, they taste so good that it is hard for us as beings of low willpower to resist such things. This is especially true for those of us who were raised from childhood with a fondness for such foods, adding more layers to our appreciation of that which is objectively bad for us. The demand of food that is cooked fast and that tastes good, be it fried chicken, french fries and other varieties of fried potatoes, chicken fried steak, greasy biscuits, and many many other examples, is very high, and a great many restaurants stay in business by catering to that hunger for fast and fatty foods, and indeed even inflaming that hunger. Of course, these restaurants cook their foods in large amounts of grease and oil and are faced with the problem of what to do with that grease. There are only so many options–that which does not get passed on to consumers to reside (however long) in their bodies must be dealt with by the restaurant itself through either a grease trap or interceptor or must be passed into the sewage system of the local community, where it can present eventual problems in blocking water mains and creating gross and unpleasant fatburgs.
There are limited ways of dealing with a problem like this. One can attempt to regulate fatty foods out of existence, taxing restaurants or trying to recoup the costs of being overweight in higher insurance premiums, but as was the case previously with Prohibition, there is significant political cost and a great deal of ill will to be gained in trying to regulate people’s vices, including gluttony, out of existence. There are personal as well as social costs of our low basal metabolism and our poor dietary choices, but it is by no means an easy task to encourage people to develop the proper habits of eating well and exercising enough to keep oneself in good shape. Alternatively, one can attempt to deal with such a problem through technological means. If we are not going to eat any fewer fats, oils, and grease (and that seems unlikely over the short term at least), then we need to find ways of dealing with those substances that does not overwhelm local utilities and harm vital infrastructure like drain pipes and sewers and the like. And the general regulatory and technological means of this has been to encourage/mandate restaurants to intercept grease before it goes into the sewage system, even as there are other scientists working on turning those grease deposits into a source of biofuel, allowing for the reuse of what would otherwise be gross and unpleasant waste products.
These approaches demonstrate the sorts of limits that are present in a wide variety of social problems. When we are faced with harmful but widespread behavior, there is often limited political capital in seeking to legislate the problem out of existence or punish those who are engaged in popular sins and vices. It is, of course, best to prevent such bad habits from developing, but we simply are not often able to be ahead of the curve in preventing harmful behaviors from coming into existence and being profitable enough that companies will cater to them. Governments can attempt to recoup the costs of having to deal with such issues through taxation and can attempt to regulate, but here the government is working against the behavior of its people and increasing the conflict that people have with a nanny state. Alternatively, research and development can be turned to the more profitable and less difficult task of seeking to reduce the effects of that bad behavior on everyone else. This can be done through developing processes that are more efficient, using fewer items while delivering the same results, or through dealing with the undesirable byproducts of various processes so that they do not become a problem for society at large. If it is hard to be virtuous in our conduct, at least we may wish to protect others from the harmful byproducts of our behavior. That is the least we can do.