It’s the time of year when our thoughts turn to love and romance, but there’s nothing romantic about this topic: Nasty stuff being improperly dumped in the sewers. “Out of sight, out of mind,” many people think after flushing their toilets or running their garbage disposals. But wastewater utilities are facing a pandemic of clogged city sewer systems that cost taxpayers and ratepayers millions of dollars to repair —with the main culprits being cooking grease and disposable wipes for adults and babies.
Across the nation and world, the problem is widespread and growing. New York City has spent “more than $18 million in the past five years on wipe-related equipment problems,” while the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission in Maryland has spent “$1 million to install heavy-duty grinders to shred wipes and other debris before they reach pumps on the way to the treatment plant.” Across the Atlantic, in 2013 Thames Water in London spent $600,000 to clean out a 10-ton “fatberg” – a massive lump formed in pipes by cooking oil and other fats.
How do utilities get customers to care about something as revolting as a sewer system? Isn’t everything gross supposed to go down the pipes and never be seen again? The answer is no; here are four suggestions for ways to persuade people to change their harmful behaviors.
1. Correct Misperceptions
Simply put, there is no such thing as a “flushable” wipe — these materials don’t break down in the wastewater system and shouldn’t be put there. Misleading packaging and advertising for these products has created a challenge for utilities that needs to be addressed with public awareness campaigns that rely on feedback from utility experts.
For example, video interviews with utility staff can invoke authenticity and scientific expertise while creating a memorable message to reinforce the facts about proper dumping. Other campaigns have featured influential personalities who have a large following. For example, the comedy/education series “Adam Ruins Everything” on truTV has done this segment on “flushable” wipes.
2. Reinforce New Habits
Asking people to adopt new behaviors and develop new habits requires frequent and pervasive persuasive messaging that reinforces social norms and suggests everyone else is doing the right thing. Utility campaigns can involve strategically placed messages at the scene of the crime —in public restrooms, kitchens and on manhole covers — as well as in visible locations such as on utility vehicles, at public events and on social media platforms.
Good, strong persuasive messages can be quick, memorable and include a direct call to action to refrain from using toilets and sinks to dispose of damaging items. Take a look at the examples below:
3. Make People Care
Raising awareness of the problems improper disposal causes for sewer systems is only one step toward creating the behavior change utilities need. How can customers be not only educated but made to care about our sewer systems? As Loretta Brown of the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies notes, “The best way for people to become engaged and change their behaviors is not just to inform them of the problem, but to have them actively experience the problem.”
Social psychologist Robert Cialdini offers that a very effective strategy for behavior change is indicating disapproval for actions that are not only problematic but harmful and destructive to things we care deeply about — be it our own financial well-being or the natural environment we share. Highlighting the inconvenience and cost of fixing clogs caused by wipes or cooking fat can achieve this end, especially if done so in a dramatic and memorable way. For example, check out the “Sewer Monsters” created by Sydney Water in Australia:
4. Employ Continuous Repetition
After a campaign is completed, many consumers will tend to revert to their old habits , assuming the problem has been solved or is no longer as important. When the Maine Water Environment Association ended its “Save Your Pipes: Don’t Flush Baby Wipes’ campaign they noticed the number of flushed baby wipes started to increase after just four weeks.
Thus, the simple advice here is not to stop the campaign. Given the damage and cost caused by improper disposal, a continuous and cost-effective campaign is worth an ongoing investment. Here are some examples from around the world:
Defend Your Drains from North Texas Municipal Water District
Toilets Are Not Trash Cans from National Association of Clean Water Agencies
Can’t Flush This from United Utilities Water PLC
Bin It Don’t Block It from Thames Water
Save Your Pipes: Don’t Flush Baby Wipes from Maine Water Environment Association
Don’t Feed the Grease Monster from San Antonio Water System
 Wagner, Vivian. August 2, 2014. Littering and Following the Crowd. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/08/littering-and-following-the-crowd/374913/
 Maine Water Environment Associate. April 16, 2015. “DON’T FLUSH BABY WIPES” PILOT PUBLIC EDUCATION CAMPAIGN. Retrieved from http://www.responsibleflushingalliance.com/inda_mewea_don_t_flush_baby_wipes_pilot_public_education_campaign