The emergence of giant ‘fatbergs’ in Britain’s sewers has led to fingers being pointed at the FOG disposal practices of the restaurant industry.
Catering equipment manufacturer Active Food Systems, pioneer of the Synergy Grill, believes its technology can help solve the problem by eliminating fats altogether — and it has already caught the attention of at least one major water authority. Catering Insight spoke to the company’s chairman, Justin Cadbury, to find out why it’s time for specifiers to sit up and take notice.
It came to light recently on BBC TV that Synergy has had discussion with Thames Water as your grill could offer a solution to the emerging fatberg crisis. What can you tell us about that?
At this stage the discussions are confidential but Thames Water does see the growing menace of fatbergs as a major problem. And the fact that Synergy is a technology that does not produce a grease by-product that effectively escalates their need to deal with this problem is seen as significant step forward in responsible restaurant operation and ownership.
How did you personally become aware of the issue of fatbergs?
I was stuck in a traffic jam in Oxford for two hours whilst the sewers were being dug up by Thames Water! I asked the CEO if he knew about the new technology of Synergy Grill. He was very interested and sent over a small team including his top scientific adviser. We did some tests and the proof of no fat was conclusive. They were a bit surprised they had not heard of Synergy but saw the benefits for the more environmentally-responsible food outlets.
What advantages does Synergy see from engaging with a water authority like Thames Water?
They bring greater exposure for the Synergy grill. This product has never needed a ‘hard sell’, but it does require a bit of technical explanation so the customer can understand the benefits. Thames Water deals with the serious players who have financial awareness for long-lasting solutions.
Is Thames Water looking to actively raise awareness of zero-fat cooking solutions like the Synergy Grill among hospitality businesses in the UK?
They are much keener than before on tackling this problem but I believe Thames Water feels that, as there are solutions out there such as Synergy, food companies should make a genuine effort to share this responsibility of our UK drains not blocking up — in summary less sympathy/PR apologies from Thames Water, now it is more a call to action to the business sector to ‘clean up’ its act!
There is a strong feeling that responsible companies will get the benefits, and irresponsible companies that don’t use fat-free equipment — whether it is grilling or otherwise — will get exposed. I think there will be an increasing tightening of legislation on fat disposal and that’s a good thing. The primary offenders are commercial restaurants who don’t use fat controlling systems. Thames Water wants to promote better practice. The bottom line is that it is down to the specifiers to make their clients aware of this new technology and that it’s actually self-financing.
With this mounting fatberg crisis, where do you think the responsibility lies?
It is already illegal for commercial outlets to put fat down the drains — but in reality we all know some do it — even those who use a fat collection company. Environmental officers believe this law will strengthen soon. It is really for the specifiers to make sure that, where there is a viable alternative, equipment that puts zero fat down the drains should really be encouraged. Not many people know that the Synergy grill range with its new technology costs no more than the premium chargrills because it’s made in Britain and comes straight from the factory direct.
If that is the case, why aren’t more customers paying attention to it?
To be fair, it is a bit like energy efficiency. Although tests show a 40% gas saving, unless it’s your money you don’t really care! Likewise for cleanliness, Thames Water tells us their research shows that it’s “somebody else’s problem to fix”. Nobody wants more legislation, but cleanliness here is a bit like seatbelts — without it being compulsory many wouldn’t bother. Detection of the fat bandits will get better and fines will increase.
There must be some hospitality operators leading the way in this area, though?
Yes, there are. They come in all sizes. At this stage I would rather not name the ones we know of, but the key is they operate on a ‘self-financing green policy’. So that if it pays for itself, such as with energy and chemical savings, they will do it. But there is a great deal of apathy. Some chefs are resistant to new technology or change, and equally some managers will not upgrade to these environmental or money-saving benefits until their existing grill breaks down — for them there is little forward planning. It amuses me to think if we offered them a 40% saving on the MPG of their car and it cleaned itself each morning they would jump at it!
So for that reason I think the environmental responsibility is something we should all face up to now before local residents look at the drainage ‘upstream’, see a local restaurant who is not using the right equipment, and expose them to harsh publicity at the next blockage or flooding.
Finally, to answer your question fully, there are the ‘environmental bandits’ who refuse to upgrade to this new technology and believe somebody else should do it instead. There are those just leaving it to their children’s generation, but with some of these drains blocked more than 90% I can promise you it won’t wait that long!
Surely a lot of restaurants have grease trays and FOG collection arrangements in place?
There are systems in commercial kitchens to dispose of much of the fat and some fat traps, if regularly maintained, work reasonably well. However, Synergy brings a uniquely dual benefit. It disposes of 100% of the fats and also it uses the natural fats within the foods not only to enhance the flavours but to further optimise the energy efficiency, saving the business owner money directly off his gas bill and labour costs.
When you originally launched the grill, you placed a lot of emphasis on the energy efficiency and reduced running costs that it offers customers. Do you now envisage the fat atomisation aspect of the grill becoming a greater selling point?
There are so many random claims on energy efficiency, the average pub either doesn’t believe them or doesn’t care, even if you have the facts and figures to prove it. You would have thought a payback of less than just one year would really get their attention — but no! So yes, the growing interest in cleanliness and proper fat and grease disposal is good for the future of Synergy, and dealers who recognise this will benefit from this trend. I think this will be further supplemented by imminent changes in the law.
Congealed food fat the size of an airliner
A fatberg the length of a Boeing 747 has been uncovered below a road in west London. The congealed mass of food fat, wet wipes and other debris formed under an 80-metre stretch of Shepherd’s Bush Road.
High-powered water jets had to be used to break up the mass last month in order to prevent sewer flooding from occurring.
The latest find still has a long way to go to beat the fatberg uncovered in Kingston, Surrey last year.
The 15-tonne lump — described as being “as big as a bus” — was a mixture of wrongly-flushed festering food fat mixed with wet wipes. Had it not been removed it could have led to sewage flooding many homes, streets and businesses in the leafy London suburb.
Gordon Hailwood, waste contracts supervisor for Thames Water said: “While we’ve removed greater volumes of fat from under central London in the past, we’ve never seen a single, congealed lump of lard this big clogging our sewers before. Given we’ve got the biggest sewers and this is the biggest fatberg we’ve encountered, we reckon it has to be the biggest such berg in British history.”
The size of the fatberg was so large that it damaged the sewer and took six weeks for the repair work to be carried out.
Overall, Harrow remains top of the London fatberg league with a staggering 13,417 blockages reported in the last five years.