SPRU - Science Policy Research Unit

Sewers matter at University of Sussex Campus

On Monday 30 April 2018, as part of the SPRU Masters module on Infrastructure, Innovation and Sustainability convened by  Dr Ralitsa Hiteva and Dr Katherine Lovell, the Southern Water ‘FOG’ and Unflushables team joined the students in exploring the sewer infrastructure and user practices on campus. As part of the visit, a number of manholes were opened, enabling students to see (and smell) the sewers with the help of special cameras.

One aim of the workshop was to raise awareness about how to keep our sewers healthy and blockage free. Southern Water are currently running a campaign called ‘The Unflushables’ to educate the public about the importance of correctly disposing of fat, oil and grease (‘FOG’) and unflushable items in the bin, instead of down the toilet or the sink. There are around 240,000 sewer blockages in England and Wales every year caused by ’FOG’ and items such as wipes, tampons, condoms and nappies entering the sewage system. This can lead to internal sewage flooding in people’s homes which can have distressing and costly results. Likewise, nearly a third (31%) of all pollutions that involve sewage overflowing into the environment are caused by these substances. Shockingly, over two-thirds of these blockages could be prevented.

During the event, which is part of an ongoing partnership, Southern Water explained how the University of Sussex is “a hotspot area for sewage problems”, possibly because people living in temporary accommodation such as halls of residence are often less mindful of how they are using the campus infrastructure. The module’s students and staff were asked to tweet their thoughts during the workshop. These can be found using the hashtags #Sewersmatter and #TheUnflushables. Santiago Cajiao, a student taking the module, tweeted “one usually doesn’t realize all the infrastructure underlying daily life.”

Southern Water also talked about the environmental cost of clearing blockages, with the process being laborious and water-intensive. Doctoral Researcher and seminar tutor on the module, Youngha Chang, tweeted about how Southern Water are being proactive in their approach to blockages as opposed to just responsive when an issue has occurred; by “maintaining specific sewer lines on a regular basis” the company are helping to “reduce issues which are likely to occur.”

Overall, students and staff who took part in the workshop took away a number of valuable and practical lessons in how to be more mindful and sustainable users of infrastructure. Ralitsa Hiteva, convenor of the module, tweeted “we want to be the change in practises for infrastructure, sustainability, as a community & individuals. At home. On campus. Everywhere. Always.”

Similarly, Southern Water are also hopeful that the students will continue to help fight against The Unflushables and encourage others to rethink what they flush. Fat, oil, grease and Unflushables Manager at Southern Water, Elvira Gabos, said:

“We were delighted to team up with the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit to help students understand how infrastructure, innovation and sustainability work in the sewer system. Our teams work daily to educate our customers on what not to flush down toilets and pour down sinks, by explaining the impact this has on the sewer network and potentially their homes, gardens and businesses due to sewage flooding. It’s exciting for us to be working with the next generation of engineers and scientists and fostering an appreciation and interest in the complex world of wastewater.”

Dr Ralitsa Hiteva, convenor of the module, commented:

“At SPRU we are always looking for partnerships with industry and society to offer students practical examples, skills and understanding of the taught material. We believe that we are training the next generation of infrastructure experts and sustainable infrastructure users.”

Some handy hints from Southern Water on how to keep our sewers blockage free:

1.       Remember the 3 P’s

Remember: the only things that should be flushed down the toilet are pee, poo or paper.  Anything else, such as sanitary items or wipes should be put in the bin. We’d recommend making sure you have a small rubbish bin in your bathroom so you can correctly dispose of items that might otherwise end up in the sewers.

2.       Use containers

If you have some cooking grease or oil left in the bottom of a pan give it a quick wipe with some kitchen paper when the pan has cooled, and pop the paper in the bin. If you have a bit more grease leftover, let it cool a bit and pour it into an empty container – empty butter tubs, yoghurt pots or jars can all be used. This can be then put in the bin instead of pouring it down the sink.

 3.       Clear your plates

Scrape any leftover food or grease and fat residue from plates, pans or cooking utensils into the bin, rather than into the sink, and help keep food debris out of the sewers.


Southern water infographicImage courtesy of Southern Water


Further information

Find out more about the Infrastructure, Innovation and Sustainability MSc module at SPRU

Learn about ‘The Unflushables’ on the Southern Water website, and join the conversation on Twitter using hashtags #TheUnflushables and #sewersmatter

Sewers matter: Southern Water visit