The foodservice industry might not know it — or even necessarily care about it if we are being utterly truthful — but for those with firsthand knowledge of the enormous pressure that fats, oils and grease from commercial kitchens places on the UK’s creaking sewer network, the market stands at a history-defining juncture right now.
More technical and scientific research into the issue of FOG is available than ever before, the industry’s most prominent players are joining forces to promote the need for effective solutions and education — there is now a FOG Forum with its own Code of Practice, for instance — and overall awareness that a real problem exists is rapidly growing.
“It is fascinating because we are in that process now of just flourishing into being an industry that needs to be taken seriously — we are actually living through the moment of it and that is quite interesting,” insists Andy Buchan, divisional managing director at ACO Building Drainage.
Buchan is a veteran of the field so he has seen FOG awareness in the industry at its most primitive. He is therefore understandably delighted that perceptions are changing, even if it is destined to be a slow burner.
Commercially it is an interesting time for ACO, following the recent release of a new range of grease management systems catering for every size of foodservice establishment, from small cafes to major foodservice operations.
Its current offer now comprises below-ground grease separators, above-ground separators and even below-sink taps for use in kitchens where space is limited and a larger solution cannot be installed.
But the stark truth is that operators don’t seek out grease separators with the same appetite they do for shiny new cooking suites or the latest pizza oven, and so the key to sales is as much about education as it is marketing.
In a bid to make grease management less of a daunting topic for restaurants, ACO is striving to bring some much-needed clarity to the situation.
For several years now, the company has partnered with Cranfield University to sponsor PHDs into the mechanics of fats, oils and grease within commercial kitchen.
“There has been a lot of knowledge built up over the last few years so we now have access to considerable background data about what actually goes on because fats, oils and grease has been a very unknown scientific environment,” explains Buchan.
For all the statistics at its disposal, the one that sticks out more than any other is how many kitchens have — or rather don’t have — a FOG solution in place. According to ACO’s estimates, only 30% of the 400,000 kitchens that operate in the UK are served by some sort of FOG mitigation system.
But that’s not the worst of it, he says: “Of that 30%, probably only half have a FOG mitigation system that has any effect or real impact. So you are talking low numbers here. If actually only 10% to 15% of them take it seriously and have got something to deal with it, the industry has got a hell of a lot of catching up to do to do something about the problem in order to solve a bigger problem — and the bigger problem is the sewers.”
Britain’s Victorian sewer network simply can’t cope with the heavier, shorter downpours that are now common these days if they are clogged up with solidified liquids from the restaurant industry and domestic household waste such as wet wipes.
“The thing about FOG is that FOG wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it wasn’t for the wet wipes, and actually the wet wipes wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if it wasn’t for the FOG — it’s the two things combined. One needs a binder and the other is the binder, and that’s what has really caused the problems. If you actually go and dig into a fatberg you’ll find an awful lot of fats, oil and grease and wet wipes because they come together.”
We are in that process now of just flourishing into being an industry that needs to be taken seriously”
It is estimated that the UK spends more than £200m a year cleaning out fats from sewers, which explains why regional water authorities are trying every technique in the book to address the problem.
Two years ago, Thames Water launched a campaign that saw officials visit food outlets to investigate their grease management and inform them about responsibly disposing of waste after research identified a clear link between fatberg hotspots and high concentrations of food outlets.
Meanwhile, others such as Southern Water and Severn Trent have shown they aren’t afraid to take court action against persistent offenders.
So, given such an extreme focus on foodservice establishments, why aren’t kitchens making it a priority?
Buchan suggests there are multiple reasons, starting with the fact that while kitchens and premises change hands all the time, it’s generally the decor and customer-facing items that get a refresh rather than the underlying infrastructure, particularly when firms are working to a budget.
Then you’ve got the likelihood that a sufficient solution wasn’t implemented properly in the first instance because Document H of the Building Regulations, which acts as a framework for compliance, doesn’t insist on a grease separator, it only suggests one would be a good idea. “Of course, if you had the choice of spending £2,500 or not spending £2,500 — umm, let me think. Where’s your incentive?”
He thinks things are changing, though, and believes that the design and engineering community could be the greatest catalyst for evolution. They are waking up to the fact that if they don’t deal with grease management at the outset, it is going to be three or four times more expensive a few years down the line when a retro-fit is required.
“The engineering community is going, ‘yeah, we need to deal with it’ and of course they want something they are confident in. Actually, the only standard is EN 1825, so that’s probably the best place to start. Does that mean that it is the best product in the world? No, it just means that the engineer is comfortable that there is something that he can hang his hat on because they like the comfort blanket.”
Buchan would also like to see environmental health officers take a tougher stance on the matter although he acknowledges that the more robust legislation needed to support this approach could take five to 10 years to put in place. He regards the advent of the British FOG Forum, which British Water is involved in, and within that a group called the Grease Contractors Association (GCA), is a positive step.
“The GCA is bringing together those guys that maintain and service grease separators, and they actually should be and could be a very influential body alongside the UK FOG Forum. Because ultimately a restaurant owner doesn’t really want to deal with FOG — they are quite happy cooking food and washing plates but they don’t really want to deal with the nasties.”
In the meantime, ACO is taking it upon itself to educate the market and provide some lucidity to the topic. With many operators not knowing what they should be doing, how they specify the right product and what their obligations are, ACO has launched a campaign called ‘Clear the Fog’, aimed at demystifying the subject and reiterating that its door is open.
“What we are trying to do is lift the lid on a bit of knowledge and give people confidence that they are not making the wrong decision; that there is somewhere to go for support. There isn’t one answer for all situations, and if that is your solution you are a long way off because actually there is a whole range of stuff. You can go from Mrs Miggins’ kitchen to a food court at Westfield and the two things are poles apart. But the truth is, just do something, because something is better than nothing.”
ACO Q&A: breaking through the fog
What is FOG?
FOG is the abbreviation for the fats, oils and grease which are found in the wastewater produced by kitchens. FOG comprises fats, oil and grease created by food debris, fats and oils used in the cooking process, and the washing of food equipment, utensils and crockery.
Why does my business need to worry about FOG?
FOG causes blockages in kitchen drainage systems, compromises hygiene, creates unpleasant odours, makes cleaning difficult and costly, can impact upon employee health and safety, and ultimately can stop your commercial kitchen from operating. FOG is also becoming a major issue for Britain’s sewer network, creating ‘fatbergs’ and causing blockages. FOG, combined with the significant use of wet wipes and other non-biodegradable items, is the major cause of sewer blockages that occur.
How big is the problem caused by poor FOG practices?
Industry body Water UK says there are 300,000 FOG-related sewer blockages every year in the UK, costing the country around £100m. Thames Water alone estimates it spends £18m per year clearing the 75,000 blockages experienced across its network.
What are the obligations on commercial kitchens?
Every foodservice outlet in the country has a legal obligation to “manage effluent content” under the Water Industry Act (1991). Section 111 of The Water Industry Act (1991) gives water companies the power to bring a criminal proceeding against anyone who causes injury or inhibits the free flow of the sewer network.
What grease management solutions are available to prevent FOG from entering my drainage and the wider sewer network?
A wide range of solutions are available including grease separators, grease traps and grease recovery units also known as GRUs. It is important to specify the right grease management solution for your business and — to ensure it continues to operate effectively — conduct ongoing maintenance.
Why are there so many different FOG management products and solutions to choose from?
Different types and size of commercial kitchen require different grease management solutions. Your choice of grease management solution will depend on a variety of key specification criteria including the size of your kitchen, the type of food you prepare, the equipment used for food preparation, the contents of your waste water, the density of the FOG produced and the space you have available for the installation of a grease management solution.
Case study: Zizzi, King’s College, University of Cambridge
Kings College commissioned new catering facilities for restaurants located below ground level at the Bene’t Street Hostel, which involved the creation of two new areas. They required an effective grease management solution to work within the limited space of the old bank vaults to facilitate their first tenant, Zizzi.
An ACO LipuJet above-ground grease separator unit was specified for use in the relatively confined space of the commercial kitchen. Certified to BS EN 1825 and manufactured from high density polyethylene for optimum durability, the separators are designed for applications where a free-standing grease separator unit is required.
An ACO lifting station and related control boxes were also implemented for use within the unusually-shaped restaurant space. Installing a grease management system below street level presented some unique challenges. As a result, the team had to cut through the ceiling above the restaurant and then rebuild the ceiling and floor above after installation.