sensory overload

What Do You Think the Fatberg Feels Like?

Like a slick space rock, or a giant hunk of compacted ear wax, or a greasy lump of trash brick? Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images

I unexpectedly found my life divided into two distinct phases on Tuesday, a day that will live in infamy, the day I learned about The Fatberg. Now, my experience cleaves neatly in half: Everything that happened before I knew about fatbergs (pre-fatbergian), and everything that will happen after (post-fatbergian). The post-fatbergian era has been one of constant questioning. What even is a fatberg? Where is the fatberg? Do we have a fatberg here in New York? How long did the fatberg take to form? How much does it weigh? What does the fatberg smell like? What does it feel like?

Emerging reports have shed a disconcerting amount of light on the fatberg, an iceberg made of fat and grease and trash that congealed inside the sewers of Sidmouth, England. At 210 feet, the fatberg is longer than: six double-decker buses parked end-to-end; the White House; Rio de Jeneiro’s towering Jesus statue; and the most famous iceberg of all, the one that sunk the Titanic (at least in terms of height). It is not as long as the 130-ton, blue whale-sized fatberg discovered under London in 2017, reportedly the equivalent of 11 double-decker buses. (A standard unit of measurement for big British things I guess?) But it’s not a contest, and by any definition, the Sidmouth fatberg is monumentally disgusting.

A fatberg looks like a hulking mound of week-old street snow, the kind that goes gray after one day of New York City traffic and takes months to melt. It forms when people flush things they shouldn’t, like tampons and condoms and wipes, the primary culprit in the case of the Sidmouth fatberg. Andrew Roantree, the director of waste water for the agency that will have the pleasure of dismantling the fatberg (South West Water), told The Guardian that when wet wipes wind up in the sewer, they “create a matrix that all these other things get caught up in” — things like cooking oil and fat, which cement the waste into a trash brick. It’s the same basic process as rat king formation, really: A bunch of tangled items glued together by sebum, sewage, and excrement. Barf!

According to The Guardian, the fatberg smells like “a heady combination of rotting meat mixed with the odor of an unclean toilet.” Charlie Ewart, the sanitation worker who discovered the fatberg during a routine sewer spelunking expedition, reported that its stench is matched only by its nigthmarish look: “Like something out of a horror scene, all congealed and glossy and matted together with all kinds of things.”

Ewart and his colleagues have not yet begun the removal process, which will involve pickaxes and shovels and high-powered jets, so there’s no way of knowing what the fatberg will feel like for sure. Ewart has a guess, though:

I think this fatberg is going to be soft on the outside but hard in the middle. I’m not too sure what is within it yet, there’s a lot of wet wipes and sanitary wrappers, but I’ve tried not to look at it too closely yet, especially as I’m going to be staring at it for eight weeks.

Personally, I suspect the fatberg will be a series of smooth lumps, slick but in a slightly sticky way, like a coral reef coated in candle wax. I suspect that, if you push on it, the fatberg’s outer layer will give slightly under your touch — maybe it will even crunch, depending on the trash you hit — quickly yielding to a firmer sub-surface in the manner of a Casper mattress. I suspect that its greasy sheen will be highly reflective on its fresher peaks, like a bodybuilder’s oiled bicep, and its texture just as dense. That’s just me, though. What do you think the fatberg feels like?

What Do You Think the Fatberg Feels Like?