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So, in keeping with our Listen and Learn system of learning, we are going to have an English conversation which you can listen to. The lesson keeps you engaged, to introduce you to new English vocabulary. The pace and voice used in the recording make it easy for language learners.
Along the way I explain difficult or uncommon English phrases and words. Every one of our lessons comes with a freely available transcript, which you can follow along with and look up any words you don’t understand. The lesson is just long enough to make it possible to fit into even the busiest of people’s days.
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Life is like a sewer: what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.
⭐ Tom Lehrer, Musician
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Sewer Drains Fatberg Thames Biodiesel Phenomenon Reaction
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You know that sometimes I like to give you a podcast which will help you practise your vocabulary, by discussing a topic that might be interesting anyway. I aim to give you podcasts sometimes that would have your attention, which you might find interesting, even if they were in your own language. Well today’s podcast – it might make you go ‘Ugh!!’. Let’s see what reaction this gets! And I’m interested also – is what I’m going to talk about a problem in your country too?!
So something that happened in London in 2017 – and which is a story that may make you go ‘Ugh!!’. In 2017, there were problems in the sewers in London – that’s SEWER. If you’ve not heard that word before, it’s a noun and it refers to the big pipes underground that take away your waste water. When you flush the toilet, let the water out of your bath, take a shower, or pour things down your kitchen sink? Well it all ends up, underground in the sewer.
We would also talk about ‘sewage’, SEWAGE as the material down there – ugh! And we’d talk about the sewerage system, that’s SEWERAGE – ‘sewerage’ is an uncountable noun, by the way! The sewerage system also deals with rainwater. Another word in English for the same thing? ‘The drains’ – that’s DRAINS.
Well, in the sewer system in the UK, there is often a problem with blockages – that’s BLOCKAGES – meaning when something, like a pipe gets blocked, stopped. So in 2017, the mother of all blockages occurred in a sewer in Whitechapel, London – and the blockage became known as ‘The Whitechapel Fatberg’ or ‘Fatty McFatberg’ also!
Whitechapel is an area in East London. And the word ‘fatberg’ is a new word – FATBERG. ‘Fatberg’ was added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2018. It’s a compound word – so two words joined together – ‘fat’, FAT means grease, oil, usually hardened – and a ‘berg’, BERG – well, think of an iceberg. A fatberg is like an iceberg, but instead of being made of ice, it’s made of fat! Ugh – how revolting!
My daughter now rents a flat in Whitechapel and I can understand why the sewerage system might be challenged in this area. There are so many flats and apartments in converted Victorian buildings, buildings which used to be warehouses. People living on top of each other in flats, the population is much denser – so I can imagine the sewers are quite full, handling the waste for so many people.
A photograph of a football pitch. In our English language listening practice lesson we talk about a fatberg longer than a football pitch!
And the thing about the Whitechapel Fatberg as it became known – it was huge, massive, enormous! Reputedly, it was so large that it weighed the same as 11 double decker buses and it was the size of two large, Wembley-sized football pitches. That’s 250 metres in length, the fatberg weighed 130 tonnes! And it was hard, like concrete, so difficult to move. But it was moved, though the sewer workers had to work round the clock to do this. ‘Round the clock’ means ‘pretty much 24 hours a day’.
Reported widely in the news, the Whitechapel Fatberg, highlighted, brought into focus a problem, which at the time, most people were unaware of. We put things down the sink and we forget about them! Thames Water, that’s THAMES like the River Thames – Thames Water is the company that covers London area – the sewers and the water supply for the London area. And Thames Water report spending over one million pounds a month clearing blocked sewers. And it’s exactly this type of problem – lots of things which shouldn’t be put down the sewers and a lot of fat, which causes it!
So what can be done, what can we do to help? Well, one of the things which most contributes to the problem are those lovely things called in English ‘baby wipes’. That’s WIPES – and ‘to wipe’ something means you clean it with a side to side movement. Think of a windscreen wiper on your car – cleaning the rain drops off your windscreen. Well, baby wipes – [laughs] notice a noun ‘wipes’ has been created from this word, this verb ‘to wipe’ at some point, probably by a marketing company!
Baby wipes are little cloths that you use once and throw away. They come in packets. And originally for cleaning up babies – babies’ bottoms usually, but also other parts of babies too, no doubt. But you can now buy ‘wipes’ to clean your floor with, anti-bacterial wipes for your kitchen, or wipes to remove your mascara, your make-up.
So the use of wipes has increased massively. Wipes are everywhere – you can even get them for your computer screen. And the problem is that people flush them away, so that they end up in the sewerage system. Wipes don’t break down. They’re strong, they hold together. So wipes of various types contribute to blockages in the drains, in the sewer pipes.
The other thing which is a problem and which perhaps we all do this as well – putting oil or fat down the sink in your kitchen. To some extent, washing away some fat is unavoidable. Whenever you wash up, whether you do it in your kitchen sink, or you use a dishwasher, there’s always going to be some fat from your food being washed into the sewer pipes.
But that’s different perhaps from pouring used oil down the sink or all that fat which comes out of a chicken when you cook it. Even milk or yoghurt shouldn’t be put down the sink. All of this fat leads to blockages.
A few years ago, we had a blockage in the sewer pipe in the road where we live. And although it was quite ‘Ugh!’, revolting, it was also quite a bonding experience with our neighbours. Everybody was out, working together to solve the problem, move the blockage on – if only, because it’s quite expensive to get someone out to sort out a blocked drain.
Apart from the jokes and the camaraderie, what I remember was just how enormous the space was underground, underneath the road at the front of the house! The sewers are huge and deep, much bigger than I’d imagined. And in the UK, they seem to be largely brick built – so quite beautifully constructed – a piece of engineering.
We and the neighbours did succeed in unblocking the sewer pipe ourselves, but it was a lesson too. Since then we’ve been much better at not letting wipes or fat or oil get into our sewer pipes – and we’ve had no problems since with blocked drains.
The Whitechapel Fatberg, ‘Fatty McFatberg’ was mentioned again in the news recently because apparently since the pandemic and the lockdown, blocked sewer pipes, blocked drains have become even more of a problem.
Solve The Maths Problem To Download Podcast & Transcript
We’ve been at home, cooking more, creating more fat. And we’ve been home more, creating more waste which ends up in our sewer pipes. And therefore there have been even more blockages to sort out, which water companies like Thames Water have had to work on. But overwhelmingly, the problem is caused by wipes – baby wipes, floor wipes, antibac wipes etc. Over 11 million wipes are sold annually in the UK. Maybe we need to think about not using quite so many!
The Whitechapel Fatberg – or part of it, is now displayed proudly in the Museum of London, though I can’t imagine why anyone might want to go and look at it! Much of it was also converted to fuel – to biodiesel, so I suppose that’s a happier end to the story.
But fatbergs cost millions of pounds every year, so perhaps we need to learn from this? Is this a UK only phenomenon – or do countries all around the world have these problems with their sewer pipes and fatbergs?! Certainly in the UK, fatbergs are widespread – with very large ones having to be moved, sorted out in Liverpool, Belfast in Ireland and Welshpool in Wales.
Interesting as well as revolting and disgusting? I hope so.
Enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.