In 2018, sewer crews in Macomb County, Michigan, made a new enemy: An enormous fatberg gumming up the pipes just north of the Clintondale Pump Station in Clinton Township. The behemoth—made from fats, oils, grease, and trash flushed down local toilets—stretched 100 feet long and 11 feet wide. Before the gloopy beast dried out—when it was still wet and juicy—it was roughly the size of two school buses. As of December 2019, a sliver of the fatberg has a new home: A much-less-smelly display at the Michigan Science Center.
The fatberg sample is displayed in a case that looks like a cross between a cylindrical sewer and a clear glass test tube. The sample resembles chunks of plaster and chalk—but ones that are dingy white, sooty gray, or phlegmy yellow, and flecked with trash. Look closely, and you’ll find syringes, tampon applicators, candy wrappers, and other bits of detritus that should never have been flushed down the toilet in the first place.
Because it’s dangerous to send humans down into narrow, dark, gas-filled sewers, crews generally try to enlist high-powered water jets to do the dirty work for them. Often, that’s enough to dislodge any built-up oils, fats, and garbage and get things flowing again. Unfortunately for the Macomb Public Works, though, the jets were no match for this fatberg. Instead, crews had to hack at it with hand saws and shovels; a video accompanying the fatberg sample shows people wading through dark tunnels and then sloshing the fresh, wet contents from a bucket into a fishtank-style vitrine back on the day-lit surface of the street. Eventually, the busted-up fatberg was suctioned up bit by it and hauled away to a landfill, except for a few lumps that were earmarked for research by scientists at nearby Wayne State University.
The display is surrounded by informative graphics about how fatbergs form, as well as the financial and ecological toll they can take on communities. (It cost $100,000 to extract Macomb’s fatberg, and much more to remove the even-more-hulking Whitechapel fatberg that sprawled beneath London’s streets and was exhibited at the Museum of London in 2018.) The Science Center display cautions against flushing wet wipes, even ones that are advertised as being “flushable.” Those tend trap grease and other gunk, and are often the foundation of a fatberg.
If the thought of seeing this former sewer-dweller makes you a little queasy, it’s easy to skip the display in favor of other exhibits. The museum also touches on spaceflight, concrete, bridge design, and much more—and all of it is a lot less stomach-churning than the fatberg.