An Ohio District's Education Program Pushes Proper Handling Of Pet Waste

An Ohio district’s EarthFest displays teach attendees about proper disposal of pet waste and the importance of conserving and protecting water.
An Ohio District's Education Program Pushes Proper Handling Of Pet Waste
The district’s Pick Up Poop (PUP) campaign urges pet owners to dispose of pet waste properly.

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They chew on our shoes, dig holes in our yards and slobber water across our kitchen floors, but they’re also loyal, big-hearted and our best friends.

In the U.S., roughly 40 percent of homes have a dog. And all those dogs — 70 to 80 million of them — make a lot of poop. That might not make great dinner conversation, but for the staff of the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District, it’s a great icebreaker.

Yes, the staff is more than happy to talk about dog poo, even at local festivals. In fact, that was the topic of choice at the district’s educational booth in April at EarthFest 2014 at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds. “The goal is to get the word out that keeping the water supply clean is a serious issue,” says Jean Chapman, manager of media and community relations. “It’s one of those things people take for granted. They think it just goes into the ground and disappears. That’s not the case.”

The district’s PUP (Pick Up Poop) campaign delivers that message to pet owners. The district estimates that 90,000 dogs live in Cuyahoga County, producing 45 tons of poop each day. An average pile can contain up to 3 billion fecal coliform bacteria, nearly 10 times more than cow manure. The waste is also more acidic because of dogs’ high-protein diets. It all means the waste can harm water quality, especially at beaches, which receive stormwater from wide areas.

“We urge people to take a biodegradable bag when they walk a dog, scoop up the waste, put it in the trash, and keep it out of the water,” says Chapman. “EarthFest is a terrific way for us to get the word out about our PUP program.” A district website, www.dogscantflush.org, provides more information.

Spreading the word

The district treats 94 billion gallons of wastewater per year, serving more than a million people in a 350-square-mile area in northern Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie. It has an operating budget of over $200 million, employs more than 600 people and operates three treatment facilities.

“A decade ago, the work the district performed was very under the radar, and citizens took it for granted,” says Mardele Cohen, community relations specialist. “We needed to create visibility. We wanted the population to know who we were and what we do. That’s why we do events like EarthFest. It’s a great coming together of the community.”

The overriding goal is to protect Lake Erie, once polluted to the point of toxicity, but cleaned up over the past 30 years and now a viable resource. “Our end goal is to keep our Great Lake great,” says Chapman. “A clean Lake Erie is obviously a big symbol for us. It’s in everyone’s best interest that a big effort is made to protect it.”

The district is a main sponsor of EarthFest, which draws a crowd of about 8,000. The staff sets up several interactive booths and displays. Besides the PUP campaign, the district displays an electro-shock boat used to test the health of fish in the district’s waterways and a hands-on laboratory booth that lets children sample many of the same water-quality tests the district’s lab staff performs.

Not just for kids

“Many of the displays we offer are geared toward educating children, but we’ve found that a lot of adults are interested in the technology and laboratory testing too,” says Chapman. “It’s great that people get the opportunity to see and understand what we do. That helps us expand our footprint in a positive manner.”

The district mixes education with humor. For example, the district distributes bathroom and portable restroom stickers that lightheartedly urge users to conserve water. The approach has been so successful that attendees seek out district staff at special events. “We are very creative on social media and hold lively community focus groups on watersheds, aquatic plants and trash and pet waste in the water supply,” says Chapman. “People aren’t surprised to see us out in the community anymore. They know us as ‘that funny crew’ now. We worked very hard to create that positive reputation.”

The positive interaction pays off in public support, especially when it’s time to make infrastructure improvements that may mean higher sewer bills. “The more outreach and education we do, the more receptive the people are to the business side of the district,” Cohen says.

Community support

Local officials support the district’s outreach programs and encourage more. “They expect us to be out in the community, interacting with people about what we do here,” says Cohen. “We are respected for our opinions, and our programs get a huge amount of support. They realize that educating the public is a huge but extremely important undertaking.”

As district personnel have seen attitudes about wastewater treatment and water conservation improve locally, other utility districts have used Northeast Ohio as an example of how to do education and outreach successfully. “We regularly have other districts bounce ideas off us or ask to use our ideas or materials in their districts, in particular our PUP campaign,” says Chapman. “We get calls on that one all the time.”

Many municipalities across the country have their own PUP programs. “That’s such a huge compliment, and we love it,” Chapman says. “Sewer districts can’t be afraid to step out into their communities and let the issues come up to the surface, even something as simple as cleaning up after a pet. It all plays a part.”   



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