WEFTEC “It’s a Toilet, Not a Trash Can” panel explores remedies for non-dispersibles.

Note: Ted J. Rulseh, editor of TPO magazine, was at WEFTEC in New Orleans this week. If you didn't get a chance to say hello, you can still email editor@tpomag.com with any comments or suggestions.

Wipes in sewers pose substantial problems, and it’s a slow and difficult process seeking cures in product standards and labeling.

So can public education really influence people not to flush items they shouldn’t? An outreach program in Portland, Maine, shows that it can — but that the education has to be sustained if it’s to be effective in the long run.

Related: Weekly News Briefs: Flushable Wipes Campaign Earns Award Nomination

In a featured session at WEFTEC — “It’s a Toilet, Not a Trash Can,” three experts shared perspectives on the wipes issue. Yosuki Matsumiya, representing the Japan Sewage Works Association, and Barry Orr, of Environmental & Engineering Services, Wastewater Treatment Operations in London, Ontario, described experiences in their countries.

The highlight was a presentation by Aubrey Strause of Verdant Water Consulting in Portland, Maine. She helped the Maine Water Environment Association design and carry out a public education program on wipes, then measure its impact — on residents’ attitudes and in the actual volume of wipes entering the sewers.

The project centered around the area served by one major pumping station in the Portland Water District. To call it thorough would be an understatement.

Related: Blog: Class-Action Lawsuit Targets Makers of ‘Flushable’ Wipes

The project team targeted not all wipes but baby wipes because, among other things, those wipes tend to be more durable than some others, account for the largest share of flushed wipes, and can readily plug wastewater pumps and well as household plumbing.

The project cost $113,000, of which $98,000 came from INDA, the wipes product industry association, and the rest from various clean-water agencies and vendors. An advertising and marketing firm and a research consulting firm lent their support.

Before launching the campaign, the team conducted detailed interviews with residents in the lift station’s territory to measure their knowledge about wipes and determine whether and how often they flushed baby wipes.

Related: Blog: WEFTEC 2014: Of hot dogs and clean water

Just as important, if not more so, they collected and sorted through screenings from the pump station and calculated the number of baby wipes per 100,000 gallons of flow and the percentage of all “other” materials those wipes constituted.

The eight-week public information program included two TV ads run on cable stations, a website, utility bill stuffers, stickers and posters. Follow-up interviews showed that:

  • People remembered the campaign without being prompted.
  • People recalled seeing the ads on TV.
  • They understood the message (“Save Your Pipes: Don’t Flush Baby Wipes”).
  • They learned that wipes could clog pipes in their homes besides harming the sewer system.

The proof positive came when the team collected and sorted wipes after the campaign. The volume declined from 33 baby wipes per 100,000 gallons to 17. The biggest reduction came immediately after the campaign. Then the volume gradually went back up — indicating the need for sustained communication. TV advertising proved the most effective communication, but was also by far the most expensive.

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The Maine team has made its materials available to other agencies to customize and use. You can find them at www.saveyourpipes.org.

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