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Cities get creative to stop “wipes in the pipes”

Local governments are finding creative ways to educate the public and change their behavior to prevent flushed wipes from damaging municipal water systems.

Water & WastewaterCommunicationsCitizen EngagementSolid Waste ManagementWastewaterWater Supply
CN

Charlotte, NC

United States

TC

Tauranga City Council, NZ

New Zealand

PM

Pitt Meadows, BC

Canada

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Highlights
  • Wipes in pipes is a problem plaguing communities around the world, causing clogs, equipment damage, and water backups or contamination

  • Many local governments are working to change citizen behavior via public outreach and advertising campaigns

  • In Charlotte, NC, the city launched a campaign featuring a series of public fights between a pipe and a wipe character, to ingrain the idea that “pipes hate wipes”

  • Tauranga City Council, NZ leaned on a positive, sticks-in-your-head message that paired a catchy jingle with a cute elephant (which was the same size as the amount of debris in local pipes)

  • Before launching its outreach campaign, Pitt Meadows, BC, conducted a survey to identify the biggest wipe-flushing offenders

Summary

They remove stains. Erase makeup. Clean baby bottoms. Kill germs. Wipes have long been an essential product around the house (even before they hit sold-out status due to the pandemic).
The problem is, many people who use wipes have no idea how to properly dispose of them. Rather than going in the trash, wipes end up getting flushed down the toilet. This seemingly innocuous act is wreaking havoc on local water systems, prompting local governments to take action to change the public’s habits.

The problem with wipes in the pipes

The very thing that makes these wipes so handy in the home — their toughness and inability to dissolve — is what brings trouble if they go down the drain. The wipes, along with other substances like oils and fats, linger and pile up in the water system, getting tangled around equipment and forming massive clogs (also known as “fatbergs”). Even wipes that bill themselves as “flushable,” aren’t really, causing even more misinformation and encouraging damaging behavior.
Facing costly — and growing, especially once disinfectant wipes became a pandemic mainstay — issues with wipes in the pipes, local governments are attempting to educate residents and get them to stop flushing their wipes.
The resulting outreach campaigns aren’t new. They’re a popular tactic for local governments around the world to fight this common challenge. But as with any campaign, especially one that seeks to change behavior, it can be hard to stand out and make an impact.
Some communities have done this well, putting creative spins on their messaging. The results have led to more citizen awareness and ultimately fewer wipes in the pipes:

Charlotte, NC pits wipes against pipes in public confrontations

In North Carolina’s largest city, Charlotte, debris such as wipes are responsible for 40% of sewer overflows. And the problem was getting worse.
To change course the city partnered with a local production company to launch “Pipes Hate Wipes,” a series of videos that pit pipes vs. wipes in everyday scenarios to show that the two just don’t get along.
The videos feature two characters: a pipe and a wipe, played by people dressed in oversized costumes. The pipe and the wipe meet and duke it out in well-known locations around the city. There’s a fight at the airport. There’s an on-air debate on a local radio station. There’s a breakup at a cafe. They even have an altercation at a Charlotte Hornets basketball game.
All of these relatable scenarios are designed to show residents — including the passerby who observe the very public showdowns — that wipes don’t belong in the pipes.
The quirky approach worked. Thousands of residents across Charlotte saw the campaign, which also got picked up by local news outlets and won a series of awards.
According to Charlotte Water:
“Overall, 10% of the Mecklenburg County population was reached through the campaign, and based on their response, it was clear that residents were shocked to see the damage that these wipes were causing.”
Charlotte’s message was simple: Pipes Hate Wipes. But simple is often the strongest approach. And by personifying the toxic relationship between the two elements, and having it play out via public performances, amplified by video and social media, the city was able to drive awareness in a memorable — and fun — way.

Tauranga City Council, NZ goes positive to save the wipes

While Charlotte’s “Pipes Hate Wipes” centered around conflict, Tauranga City Council, NZ put a positive lens on the issue.
The city removes roughly two tonnes of wipes from the local wastewater system every week. That’s about the size of a small elephant … so the city ran with it.
Tauranga’s creative partner, Wave, explains the approach:
“We knew that if we just told people not to flush wipes, they’d think it didn’t apply to them. So, instead we’ve created a super-catchy animated video featuring our likable two tonne elephant to get the city talking about a negative issue in a positive way.”
The video reimagines the lyrics to the classic jingle “Skip to My Lou” to talk about “poo and goo” that’s stuck in the sewer pipe as a smiley animated elephant gets flushed and stuck in the pipes. Additional placements, including bus adverts, posters and billboards — all featuring the elephant and rhyming messages — ran around town to spread awareness.
The positive spin shifts the narrative, and the blame: now, instead of residents doing something wrong by flushing wipes, the cute elephant and catchy song stick the concept in residents’ minds, and offer an optimistic alternative.
But the catchy song and cheery graphics were only part of the strategy. The campaign used hyper-local social media targeting to target people in specific neighborhoods or streets within hours of a blockage. This reactionary marketing reinforced the cause-and-effect connection between overflows and the wipe-flushing that caused them.
People listened. And they acted. According to City Waters Manager, Stephen Burton:
“We have compared the data of the last two summer peak seasons and found that the number of sewage overflows caused by wet wipes reduced by 40%.”
The campaign also won the Sustainable Business Network awards’ “communicating for change” category that year. And, after the success in Tauranga, Wave is repurposing its campaign materials and offering them to other local governments who want to try a similar approach.

Pitt Meadows, BC introduces “adult toilet training”

Humor is the driving force in Pitt Meadows, BC, where a “Never Flush Wipes” campaign centered around the idea of “adult toilet training,” with tips on what to flush and what not to. But first, the city did its homework.
Before launching the campaign, the city conducted a survey of residents and found out that the majority of flushed wipes were women’s hygiene products, not baby wipes. This data helped the city focus its communications on women, such as placing posters in public womens’ restrooms and a traveling pink port-a-potty that appeared at public events and promoted the messaging.
Metro Vancouver Utilities Chair Darrell Mussatto explains the approach:
“It’s really important to reach our target audience in relevant places like bathrooms and at point-of-sale. The pilot’s results also show the importance of using community channels and having municipal support.”
Pitt Meadows ran the $85,000 campaign for two months. Beyond women’s restrooms, signage appeared on social media, shopping outlets, and movie theaters. After the pilot period, the number of wipes entering the local pump station dropped from 18 per hour to 6 per day.
The campaign was so successful that it expanded to other parts of the Vancouver area.
By taking time to understand the specific causes contributing to wipes in the pipes, Pitt Meadows was able to more effectively identify and target a solution. This set their campaign up for greater impact.

Efforts beyond citizen engagement campaigns

Community outreach campaigns are far and away the most frequently used tool in the fight against wipes in pipes. However, some local governments have attempted to make change through other avenues.
In some cities, local governments are attempting to regulate packaging to clarify that “flushable” wipes aren’t actually flushable. (New York City and others have explored requiring wipes to say “Do not flush” on the packaging; Washington state plans to enact a similar rule.)
Other communities, such as Minneapolis, MN, have taken things further, mounting legal challenges against wipe producing companies.
And while smart sewer system technology may not quite be ready to locate or predict blockages from wipes, we’re optimistic that advancements in artificial intelligence and sensors may be able to leverage technology to address the issue.

Tips for a successful “save the pipes” campaign

For now, educating citizens and encouraging them to shift their behavior remains the best way to keep wipes from the pipes. As Pitt Meadow, Tauranga, Charlotte, and many other cities show, there are a number of creative ways to get your message across.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Make wipes the enemy — not the flushers: It’s much easier to convince people to listen and change their ways if you’re not scolding them for their existing behavior. If people view the wipes as the problem, not themselves, they may be more likely to work to fix it.
Highlight the cost of wipes in pipes: This can be the monetary cost — citizens don’t want to see hundreds of thousands of their tax dollars going to de-gooping fatbergs in the water system. It can also be the environmental cost, showing people how flushing wipes can impact their local water supply.
Keep your message simple with a clear call to action: You don’t have to get fancy with the campaign names and concept. Even the most creative pull-throughs have very straightforward messages, like Wipes Hate Pipes. It’s also not good enough to educate people that wipes are bad, be sure to provide actionable directions they can follow.
Get inspired by other campaigns: Look at how other local governments are getting their message out. Would that same approach work for your constituents? Is there a local spin you can add? The best way to set yourself up for a successful campaign is to build upon a project that has already proved effective.

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LP

Lindsay Pica-Alfano

Co-founder at Govlaunch

AUTHOR

Status

In Progress

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