It must be admitted that in the honor roll of modern problems, few sound as funny as “fatbergs.”
“We were literally laughing, tears rolling down our faces, talking about all the things that had been discovered in this glob of waste,” said Laura Lady, recalling the reaction of friends the first time she heard about one of these sewer-pipe-clogging buildups of oils and other debris.
But Lady has since realized that fatbergs aren’t actually funny because they can cause sewer backups (ugh) and cost big bucks to remove – a cost that gets added to sewer and water bills. For non-city residents, even small deposits can destroy a septic system.
So she has developed and is selling a partial solution. Called FryAway, it’s a powdery mix that home chefs can add to leftover cooking oil, turning it into a jelly-like substance that can be thrown away or composted, instead of the too-common practice of pouring it down the sink.
“You think you have a small enough amount it won’t make a difference if you chase it with hot water and dish soap, and you think it will disappear. But it won’t,” Lady said. “Down the line it creates a huge amount of problems.”
Although her business is barely a year old, with some of the products still being made in the garage of the family’s Webster home, she says it has found a market, with distribution through a “national grocery chain” set for the fall. “Within the first whole year we were breaking the seven-figure mark” in sales (that is, more than $1 million), “which is very exciting.”
The fog of cooking
Cooking oil is part of what wastewater folks call FOG, which stands for fat, oils and grease – things that tend to congeal rather than flow. FOG is the fatberg-causing bane of sewer systems everywhere, especially when mixed with other products such as “flushable wipes” that don’t degrade like they’re supposed to.
So far as I can tell, no New Hampshire sewer system has ever faced a pipe-filling fatberg. Those tend to be found only in big city sewer systems in places where the effluent from tens of thousands of toilets converge. Our wastewater systems are smaller and more spread out.
That does not, however, mean FOG isn’t a problem here.
“It can stick to sewer lines, slowly constrict them – kind of the way they say it happens to your arteries,” said Ray Gordon, administrator of the Winnipesaukee River Basin Program, a 10-town sewer system in the Lakes Region that is one of just three state-run wastewater plants in the country.
Commercial users of cooking greases and oils are required to have systems to keep them out of the sewer. Anybody who worked in the back of a restaurant that sold fried chicken will shudder at the memory of cleaning out the grease trap.
Homes produce a lot less of the stuff but it can add up. “If you have 500 homes and all are putting down a little bit of grease, it’s more than from one restaurant,” said Gordon.
His system, like pretty much every wastewater system, depends on education to get people to keep FOG out of their drains. Concord, for example, has a “Fats Oils Greases” page on the website giving details (concordnh.gov/1356/Fats-Oils-Greases-In-Our-Sewers) as well as in material that’s handed out.
Gordon said there’s no realistic hope of keeping all FOG out of pipes. But less is better.
“You hope you make enough of an impact that it’s more manageable,” he said, noting that pipes getting clogged often have to be flushed with hot water. “We could be out there once a week cleaning, or once a month or once a year. It’s all a matter of how much is added to the system.”
Which brings us back to FryAway.
Not a scientist
Lady has a background in the toy industry – she once worked for Lego and says one of the characters in the Lego Friends set is named for her – and says she was prompted to tackle the fatberg question at a friend’s house.
“I fried up a big batch of chicken and happened to be in a house that was on septic. I couldn’t pour oil down the drain and the topic came up: what do you do with all this oil?” she said. It can’t even be poured into the kitchen compost bucket because it can overwhelm the bacteria that breaks down material.
She developed the powder’s proprietary formula through experimentation – “I’m not a scientist, just a curious person who likes to experiment” – and began manufacturing it with support from her husband, Justin, who works in biotech, and their two daughters, ages 9 and 4.
Her past experience with marketing and product development has been valuable, Lady said. FryAway is sold directly and through others, both online and in stores, and in various quantities and packaging to appeal to different levels of home cooks.
The one thing she had learned, Lady says, is that it will take more than just one product to keep away the FOG.
“I’m talking to several (wastewater treatment) plants across country about community outreach plans. More than anything, just educate consumers. Whether they use FryAway or not, ensure they are disposing of oil in the most responsible way they have access to.”