"People are using the sewer system as an alternative trash can, a very expensive alternative. Grease and food scraps are being sent down the sinks; disposable products, especially baby wipes and public restroom paper towels, are being flushed down the toilet," said Robert Villée, a committee chairman for the Water Environment Federation.
Grease plays a starring role amid the other junk, Hairfield said. "When you put grease on top of onion skins, potato skins and all that other stuff, it's like glue. It sticks to the pipes."
In the extensive and poorly funded American sewer infrastructure, with pipes as old as the Gettysburg Address in many places, grease from commercial operations and households is causing up to 40 percent of sewer overflows nationwide that back raw sewage into sinks and bathtubs and into local waterways.
The presence of fat in the bowels of cities and suburbs is just one symptom of a more pressing problem in the nation's old and decrepit sewers, said Adam Krantz, managing director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
"We are facing a looming crisis in terms of our water infrastructure," Krantz said. "We are nearing the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in October, and we are seeing some pipes and treatment systems nearing the end of their useful lives."
Money used by utilities to upgrade facilities and cut down on overflows to meet Environmental Protection Agency regulations could buy larger and more efficient pipes that can overcome grease, tree roots and other problems.
But the estimated pricetag for fixing the nation's new water infrastructure over the next 20 years is steep — $334 billion, according to the EPA. So cash-strapped utilities are making do with what they have, relying on patchwork.
"If we could reduce one tablespoon of grease per household, that's 57,000 gallons of grease we wouldn't have to deal with," said George Martin, general manager of a sewer system in Greenwood, S.C.
Martin spoke as if his proposition were a fantasy, and Villée knows why: "No one's coming to arrest you for this one."