New York City is Fighting Fatbergs in Sewers with a New PSA Campaign

Chris Hondros, Getty Images
Chris Hondros, Getty Images

There are certain consequences to living in an age of convenience. Plastic straws are filling up landfills, prompting widespread bans and restrictions on their distribution. Now, New York City is turning its attention to an even more disgusting scourge: fatbergs.

A fatberg is a repulsive coagulation of things you shouldn't flush down the toilet, like bacon grease and so-called “flushable” sanitary wipes. They can be immense: One London fatberg grew to be 143 tons, becoming a cautionary tale for the rest of the world.

These mobile chunks of waste travel in sewers, creating significant blockages. The fatbergs can force untreated water into clean water sources and cause backups in residential plumbing.

With New York City currently spending $20 million annually on clearing these blockages, officials have decided to mount a public campaign cautioning residents against some of their bad plumbing habits. They have a new website admonishing people to abide by the “Four Ps” of flushing—poop, pee, puke and (toilet) paper are fine, while grease and wet wipes are not. Those should be thrown in the garbage.

While most people don’t have a problem directing their vomit and feces into a toilet without written instruction, there’s still a widely held belief that wet wipes are safe to flush. This is likely due to companies labeling them “flushable” on packaging, though the city’s anti-fatberg site insists that “flushable” simply means they won’t clog a toilet. Once it’s in the sewer system and mingles with grease, the wipes begin to contribute to a public health problem. The city removed almost 53,000 tons of debris from sewage treatment screens in 2017. Most of it consisted of the wipes.

With 8.6 million people in New York creating a substantial amount of waste, it’s easy to see why city management feels an urge to curb the problem. But no matter where you live, it’s a good idea to relegate flushes to bodily fluids and toilet paper only. Cooking crease should be allowed to cool, then put in a container and thrown away.

[h/t Slate]

The Tree That Inspired Dr. Seuss's The Lorax Has Fallen Over

Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Rhododendrites, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The Truffula trees at the center of The Lorax may have been a product of Dr. Seuss's imagination, but it's believed they were inspired by a real-life tree in La Jolla, California. Nearly 50 years after the environmental parable was published, Smithsonian reports that the iconic Monterey cypress has fallen.

The tree had grown for 80 to 100 years in what is today Ellen Browning Scripps Park in Southern California. It was clearly visible from the observation tower where Theodor Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, lived in La Jolla following World War II.

While the children's book author and illustrator never stated that the tree inspired his work, locals started referring to it as "The Lorax Tree." The resemblance it bears to Seuss's Truffula is undeniable: Both have skinny trunks with whimsical curves and thick, fluffy canopies of foliage concentrated at the top.

In The Lorax, the Truffula trees are threatened by the Once-ler, who wants to chop them down and turn them into garments called Thneeds. The title character "speaks for the trees" and conveys the book's environmentalist message.

Unlike the Truffula, La Jolla's Monterey cypress appeared to be in no danger until it recently toppled over. Arborists aren't sure what caused the collapse, as they hadn't noticed any prior health issues with the tree except for some termites. The past year's uncharacteristically wet winter and the effect it had on the surrounding soil may have played a role, so experts are looking into that possibility.

Most of the tree has been removed from the area, and the city plans to plant another tree in its place. There are also plans to salvage and repurpose the trunk from the fallen tree, though they haven't been made official.

[h/t Smithsonian]

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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