California Utility Tackles Flushables With Multimedia Campaign

Multiple media and ever-changing approaches help a California sanitary district drive home to customers the problems wipes can cause.
California Utility Tackles Flushables With Multimedia Campaign
The multifaceted “Wipes Clog Pipes!” campaign educates customers about what can and can’t be flushed.

Many studies prove that to really hit home with your message, it needs to be delivered multiple ways. The public relations team at the Central Contra Costa Sanitary District of California follows that approach in ramping up communications urging citizens to avoid flushing wipes.

The education campaign about wipes began in 2009. More recently, the district launched a “Wipes Clog Pipes!” campaign, spreading the message at community events and through newsletters, social media ads and a giant billboard along Interstate 680. The district is also working with industry groups to develop new flushability guidelines and to improve wipes’ design and labeling.

“It’s a program we really try to do more with every year,” says Emily Barnett, communication services and intergovernmental relations manager. “We believe a successful program needs to be delivered seven times to make an impact. We do it in different sensory ways to create one comprehensive approach.”

Multiple media

The campaign educates customers about what can and can’t be flushed. The varied media amount to what Barnett calls a shotgun approach. “Our wastewater treatment staff has had to deal with these problems every day,” says Barnett. The wipes cause blockages in sewer mains and on screens at treatment plants.

“We’ve been directed by our community leaders to focus on this problem,” says Barnett. “We hit our constituents with a similar message delivered through different avenues.” While the treatment plants have added equipment like grinders that chop up the wipes before they reach pumps, it’s a stopgap solution that just sends debris farther down the line, Barnett says.

The outreach campaign aims to cut wipes off at the source.

“We are trying to raise awareness as well as change consumer behavior around some of these practices that we know are bad for our customers,” says Barnett. “They are expensive, they are messy, and they are bad for people’s health.” The campaign encourages people to throw wipes in the trash, instead of the toilet.

Humble beginning

The program began in 2009 as a single postcard Wheel of Fortune mailer that urged homeowners to mind what they flushed. Barnett says sewer backups were a natural issue to rally around, since they affect the water system from supply to wastewater.

“What we’ve learned by working on this for all these years is that our customers are not alone,” says Barnett. “Almost every wastewater treatment plant in North America is dealing with similar issues. Because of that, the lessons we are trying to get out there are universal and very adaptable regardless where you are.”

Learning from successful campaigns in other cities, “Wipes Clog Pipes!” doesn’t point fingers at customers. It paints nondegradable objects as the enemy and focuses on negative impacts to households.

“As much as we talk about all of the trouble it’s causing our municipal infrastructure, we’ve found the best success when we look at the impact to the customer,” says Barnett. “Of course, the most attention-grabbing impact is cost. This is a municipal problem, but it’s also a household risk. When pipes in the home become clogged with non-flushable items, the expense is eventually passed down to the homeowner.”

The campaign doesn’t focus solely on wipes; it urges people not to flush fats, greases, oils or unwanted medications. These are issues that can only be addressed by educating consumers. While wipes make up only a chunk of the objects clogging pipes, they are the only ones advertised as “flushable.”

“We work directly with retailers to distribute information and urge them not to sell wipes that carry the ‘flushable’ tag,” says Barnett. “That isn’t always successful, but we feel that any education we can get out there helps us toward the final goal.”

Proof positive

To justify the outreach campaign, the district orders third-party surveys that test constituents’ knowledge of the wipes problem. One survey was sent to a gated retirement community that had a large pipe-clogging problem brought on by flushed wipes. It found that residents of the community had very little knowledge that wipes they regularly flushed could cause issues.

In response, the district hosted a community meeting, and sent its newsletter, The Pipeline, and targeted postcard mailers to residents. A second survey indicated that community knowledge had increased, and clogging issues quickly declined.

“There was a substantial drop-off in maintenance calls due to wipes clogging the pipes in that neighborhood,” says Barnett. “That success caused us to look at what worked and how we communicated. More important, it told us that the only way to prove that the message is getting through is to have strategic testing done.”

The program has earned outside recognition: Last year the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board presented the district with its annual WuHoo! Pollution Prevention Award, given in memory of former board employee Dr. Teng-chung Wu, an early advocate for pollution prevention.

Melody LaBella, the district’s pollution prevention program coordinator, accepted the award. “Melody has really spearheaded the whole campaign, and her enthusiasm has rubbed off on many others in our organization,” says Barnett.

Barnett says the district is always looking for new avenues to expand its outreach, especially related to wipes. The key is to change up the message: “When you present the same message over and over, it gets stale, and people just stop paying attention. At the same time, the demographics of our communities and the ways they communicate are constantly evolving. If you aren’t future-focused, you’re already behind.”


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