Pumpkins. Spiders. Cobwebs. What Are They Doing in the Lab? Supporting Education.

A North Carolina utility draws accolades for an annual Halloween-themed event in its wastewater treatment lab.

Pumpkins. Spiders. Cobwebs. What Are They Doing in the Lab? Supporting Education.

Jason Manning, plant superintendent, leads a family to the outside portion of the Trick or Treatment tour.

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At the end of October, the Greenville (North Carolina) Utilities Commission’s wastewater treatment lab transforms into a spooky venue and a fun learning experience.

The commission staff created the first Trick or Treatment event in 2016 after seeing an article about something similar held at a major clean-water facility. They decided to try the idea on a smaller scale. Plant staff members dress up in costumes and decorate the plant with Halloween props.

JoEllen Gay, environmental compliance coordinator, calls the event a great team-building experience. The lab and pretreatment staff brainstormed ideas to deliver messages about wastewater treatment in fun and entertaining ways.

The Greenville Utilities Commission treatment plant has been in operation since 1985. It was built for a capacity of 10.5 mgd but was upgraded in 1995 to a state-of-the-art facility that can now treat 17.5 mgd (10.54 mgd average flow).


After the staff developed ideas for the first event, the public relations department created a catchy flyer that was posted on its Instagram and Twitter accounts. They also sent the flyer to teachers, inviting them and their students, and promoted Trick or Treatment during outreach visits to schools, colleges, and science and STEM fairs.

The day before the event, staff members decorate the lab with beakers and flasks full of glowing, bubbly, colorful water. Pumpkins carved with the word “POO,” mock cobwebs and plastic spiders add to the spooky nature of the space. Caution tape all around the plant alerts the attendees that they are entering the Halloween-themed lab.

Karen Foster, industrial pretreatment specialist, observes, “Each year, we try to add something a little different to the lab to change up the experience.” Attendees are also encouraged to wear costumes. All guests enter through the lab and see the microorganisms that treat wastewater on a large TV monitor connected to a microscope. A live slide is used, and children and adults can look through the microscope to get a close-up view of the microbes.


After visiting the lab, attendees are led by a plant operator to the oxidation ditches to see where the microorganisms live and work. Next, they move on to the secondary clarifiers. Tours last 30 minutes and up, depending on the attendees’ ages.

Upon leaving, the children received disposable plastic lab gloves filled with candy. They also received squeezable stress reliever toys printed with “Cleaning Water Through Science” and “Toilets Are Not Trash Cans,” and coloring books on the wastewater treatment process.

The utility also uses the event to promote its Cease the Grease campaign, handing out reusable plastic lids imprinted with the campaign theme for attendees to put on a jar or can at home. Residents can store FOG in the containers and toss them into the garbage when full.


One news station team filmed the event for airing on its 6 p.m. newscast. Attendees’ comments have been overwhelmingly positive: children and adults told how much they enjoyed the event and how much they learned. One third grader who came dressed as Harry Potter “absolutely fell in love with our plant and loved the tour so much he stayed for quite some time and asked a lot of questions,” Gay says.

He went back to school and wrote about the tour and the plant in one of his assignments titled, “The Eight Wonders of Greenville.” His teacher was so taken with his enthusiasm that she called the utility and scheduled a tour for the entire class.

The plant hosted the group for the day with snacks and gave them a private tour. The staff also performed some simple lab tests for the students, showing them the pH levels for Mountain Dew, milk and water. After the tour, they gave the third-grade author a special Greenville Utilities Commission T-shirt and declared him an honorary employee.  


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