London may be known for its rainy climate, but the city’s annual rainfall is actually around half that of Sydney, and less than Dallas’ or Istanbul’s yearly precipitation. Indeed, the British Environment Agency designates the capital as “seriously water-stressed” and at risk of summer water shortages.
But now Thames Water, which provides drinking water to 8.5 million people in and around London, has found a new weapon in the fight against drought, and one that is even more stereotypically British than a rainy day: greasy fish ‘n’ Chips.
Earlier this month, the water provider opened a new, $400 million desalination plant in East London that will turn 150 million liters of tidal water a day from the Thames River into drinking water. The plant, which will only operate during water shortages, will be powered by Biodiesel fuel. And a good portion of that biofuel will come from local “chippies,” as the Brits call their take-away deep-fried fish ‘n’ chips shops.
“We will source our biofuel from various places—rape seed oil is a candidate. But there’s a strong aspiration that we will gather a good portion of it from used fat that will be collected by subcontractors from businesses who discard a lot of oil or fat, from take-away shops to major [potato chip] manufacturers,” Thames Water spokesman Simon Evans told TIME’s Ecocentric blog.
Dredging deep fat fryers for makeshift biofuel is not a new idea: when gas prices spiked in the last few years, many Americans decided to convert their diesel cars to run on vegetable oil, and Japan began using leftover tempura oil to power cars in 1998.
The new plant in London has caused controversy, however, as environmentalists argue that desalination should be a last resort for truly water starved environments such as deserts and cruise ships. They say that water prices are too low in London and that the city wastes too much of the 2,600 million liters that it draws from Thames Water every day (around 75% of London’s water comes from fresh water rivers diverted into reservoirs; the rest is sucked through bore holes from beneath sodden turf). London’s former mayor, Ken Livingston, originally tried to block the plant’s construction, arguing that water meters should be put in homes to change consumption patterns. Livingston’s legal challenge was lifted after he lost the 2008 election to Conservative candidate Boris Johnson.
Darren Johnson, who represents the Green party on the London assembly, criticized the plant in an interview with the BBC. “The desalination plant is a [Band-aid] solution to London’s water shortage problem, which will take the pressure off Thames Water to reduce the capital’s appalling leakage rates,” he said.
In a press release, Martin Baggs, Thames Water’s Chief Executive, said that the plant was needed because existing resources could not meet London’s growing water demand. He defended the plant as “green”. “Running it on biodiesel, derived from materials including used cooking oil, will also help us tread as lightly as possible on the environment, on which our core business depends,” he said.
Given that many climate scientists predict hotter, drier summers for Britain in the future, drought in a capital known for its soggy summers is likely to become a more frequent event. For lovers of Britain’s staple dish, that might be welcome news: who wouldn’t want to to stuff themselves silly for the sake of their city? But there may be a problem: greasy fish ‘n’ chips sure does make you thirsty.