Driving Home a Simple Point

There’s a role for education in helping clean-water agencies deal with problems caused by the proliferation of wipe products.

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This month's "In My Words" feature describes the excellent work the Maine WasteWater Control Association is doing to help deal with the problems caused by wipe products that get flushed down toilets into the sewers and to treatment plants.

It's a great example of a group taking serious action instead of just complaining — and it's a highly ambitious effort that includes working with the state legislature and with a global association representing the very large and growing nonwoven products industry.

Their work should inspire others in the profession. The outcome is still very much in question, and the results may take a long time to show up, but this is the kind of effort that could lead to a lasting solution to what has become a serious problem. It's well worth reading about this group's endeavors.

The role of education

My only quibble with the approach is that it seems to downplay the potential benefits of customer education. It's clear that education is not the whole solution, because the necessary messages will never reach everyone, and some people won't change their ways no matter how often they are shown the benefits of doing so — if they're in the habit of flushing wipes, they will keep flushing.

It's also true that in the ideal world, more wipes should be truly flushable (disintegrating in water like toilet paper) and consumers should be able to trust a "flushable" label on container.

But this is a case where the educator has some clear advantages. First, the message that needs delivering is exceedingly simple and clear. Second, the message sender has a bully pulpit and easy access to the recipients. Third, the message reaches well beyond the issue of wipes to include any item that when flushed causes harm.

And that message is: "Flush nothing except toilet paper."

Risking confusion

Now, an argument can be made that consumers who get that message will become confused when they encounter a package of wipes labeled "flushable." I would respond that people are likely to trust their local water and wastewater utility more so than the maker of a paper product.

Besides, "no flush" is a whole lot less confusing than "no flush except when a container is labeled 'flushable' and you can verify through research that the product in question is in fact made to internationally recognized flushability standards."

Furthermore, an extremely simple, unambiguous message is easy to communicate and to repeat until it sinks in. How about printing it on every water and sewer bill? Not on bill inserts, which arguably no one reads (I don't believe I have ever read one), but right there under "Amount Due"?

How about putting it front and center on the website home page one click away from a clear explanation of why? How about printing up suitable-for-framing index-card-size signs that say "SOS (Save Our Sewers): Flush nothing except toilet tissue" for people to hang over their paper holders?

Suppose local radio stations could run occasional public service announcements with the "no flush" message. How about making sure every treatment plant tour includes the bar screens and a lesson on how flushing the wrong items causes waste material to accumulate there, costing money for handling and disposal and helping to drive up rates? All these actions, and others like them, are simple, low-cost and potentially effective.

Impact today

As noted, education won't get the whole job done. The ideal combination includes well-informed customers and products designed to do no harm. The second half of that bargain could be years away. Education can have a meaningful impact — and in very short order. Why not give it a legitimate shot?


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