Of Hand Soap and SSOs

Of Hand Soap and SSOs
Daphne Utilities staff members with soaps: from left, Jennifer Taylor, customer service representative/receptionist; Janice Daniel, senior customer service representative; and Kathe Quaites, billing coordinator.

Rob McElroy doesn’t believe a clean-water agency should keep a low profile.

“We don’t want to go into a prevent defense like every NFL team, which then goes on to lose in the last two minutes,” says McElroy, general manager of Daphne (Ala.) Utilities.

His public outreach programs include — of all things — handing out cakes of soap at public gatherings. Believe it or not, the soap helps energize a household grease recycling program that has reduced sanitary sewer overflows by 70 percent since 2006.

McElroy’s approach to SSO prevention is similar to fire departments’ approach to fire prevention: Make people aware of the issues and encourage them to do small things at home for their own and the public’s benefit. The program supports the two key aims of the Fire Chief Project:

  • Raise clean-water operators to the stature of the fire chief
  • Make kids grow up wanting to be clean-water operators

Making the connection

The soap give-away has its roots in a biodiesel project. As McElroy explains, Daphne Utilities had been under a consent decree from Alabama Department of Environmental Management to reduce sewer spills.

Daphne, a city of 25,000, has about 100 restaurants and 11,000 homes. A grease ordinance keeps the restaurants in compliance; grease blockages in the sewer lines — the main source of spills — were caused mainly by homeowners dumping used cooking oil and grease down the drain.

The utility started its grease recycling program in 2005, giving people sealable gallon jugs to collect grease and setting up drop-off stations around town. At first the oil was sent to a renderer, but then Kevin Bryant, wastewater treatment plant manager, suggested using it to make biodiesel fuel. McElroy ran with the idea, and eventually the utility was producing about 400 gallons of biodiesel per month.

A byproduct of the fuel-making process is glycerin (a sugar alcohol), which at first was simply poured into the digesters as “candy for the bugs,” says McElroy. “Then one day my wife said, ‘I used to make soap with glycerin and lye like my great-great-great-grandmother used to make and it is really popular these days. Have you ever thought of making soap with your glycerin?’

Compelling story

“I thought that was a cool idea, so we started making little glycerin soaps. We color them, put perfume in them and mold them into animal shapes, stars, hearts and fish. We give them out in schools and say, ‘Now go home and tell mom when she’s frying that chicken, don’t pour that oil down the sink. Bring it to Daphne Utilities. They can make gas and soap out of it.’ It’s the coolest little program, and it just grabs the attention of everybody.

“I’ve never gone to a street festival or fair and had my wife grab my hand and say ‘Honey, look, it’s the man who runs the sewer system — I’ve always wanted to talk to him!’ But I can set up a folding table anywhere, dump a bunch of these soaps out, and almost immediately have a line of people coming up and saying, ‘What’s that? You make soap out of what? Can I recycle my oil too?’ And I say, ‘Yes you can — let me help you get started.’

“We can tell customers a compelling story that energizes them into doing small things at home that help our system, rather than doing the convenient, easy thing that hurts our system.”

Not long ago, a parent asked whether soap made from a recycle stream that includes peanut oil might trigger her son’s peanut allergy. Unable to get a definitive “no” answer from experts he called, McElroy decided to use that soap only for in-plant purposes. Now the utility uses commercial-grade glycerin to make the soap for the public.

“We explain that when they’re using this soap, it’s a reminder of our biodiesel project and the soap we make from that glycerin byproduct,” he says. “We still make it, we still use it. We’re just choosing to do the safe thing with the public.”

The program has also generated international attention and the utility has helped utilities in more than a dozen states and several other countries including Australia, England and Japan to get started on their own efforts. “As cool as the oil recycling and the biodiesel is, the first call we get is always from someone who saw the soap,” McElroy says. “I guess that’s the whole point, isn’t it?” 

For more on the Fire Chief Project, visit the blog at www.tpomag.com.


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