Early in the project we worked with our partner organisations to identify four specific issues, through which we can explore the new light that nexus thinking, together with a focus on everyday kitchen practices, can shed on ongoing policy challenges. One such issue, identified in collaboration with Waterwise, is the widespread disposal of fats, oils and grease (FOG) via kitchen sinks, leading to severe blockages in drains and sewers.
On 16th March two of the project team, Liz Sharp and Mike Foden, presented initial findings from our work on FOG to some of the water engineers in the University of Sheffield’s Pennine Water Group, as part of their regular seminar series. Our aim was to test out our ideas and get some feedback from a more technically minded audience.
Our presentation began by explaining the context for the work before introducing the practices approach and how we conceptualise the kitchen. We introduced six different stages in the process of food provisioning, or ‘kitchen action points’, from grocery shopping through to cleaning up after a meal. We then suggested that for each action point there were a range of potential scales of intervention, from the completely infrastructural (fatberg blasting) to the completely behavioural (information campaigns), with a set of interesting hybrids in-between (e.g. new fat collection infrastructures).
There were clear challenges in presenting our (social science) research to an engineering audience: on the one hand, explaining our approach to social practices clearly without over-simplifying it; on the other hand, seeking clarification on some technical points without being overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of the answers. These are not, perhaps, unusual concerns in an interdisciplinary environment, but never easy to deal with. As one audience member noted, in attempting to engage with and comment on our approach to what goes on in kitchens and how to intervene in it, they were limited to drawing on their own personal experience at home.
We did however learn about some interventions we had not previously been aware of, including the impacts of a short-lived ‘fat tax’ in Denmark (the motivation was about health rather than addressing FOG, but nevertheless, one could imagine it might have an impact on FOG). With the audience we engaged in some interesting speculation about the changing extent and composition of waste fats from cooking through time. What was the impact of war-time rationing, for example? Had the quantity of food-frying varied over time? And has the historical shift from cooking with animal fat (generally solid at room temperature) to vegetable oils impacted on the customary form of disposal? We even gained some very useful insights into how fatbergs grow.
It was also interesting to reflect on the normative stance of our audience. Whereas the water industry expects the public to take responsibility for their sewers, some of our audience raised the opposite view: “we are paying for water services, so why shouldn’t we chuck fat down the drain?”. For this particular technically skilled audience, the appropriate answer was also linked to the respective lifecycle costs and benefits of different means of disposal: would it be better to incinerate fat rather than add it to landfill or anaerobic digestion; what would be the impact of disposing of FOG in food waste collection?