KEEPING WIPES OUT OF THE PIPES
Sydney Water’s educational program to influence customer behaviour
K Smith, C Kawtal
Publication Date (Web): 13 July 2016
Question: Four blue whales, 60 Tyrannosaurus Rex, 20 buses, a fully loaded Sydney train, a jumbo jet… What do all these things have in common?
Answer: They are all about 500 tonnes in weight – which equates to the weight of wet wipes products Sydney Water pulls from its network every year at a cost of millions of dollars and increased environmental risks from overflows caused by blockages.
Sydney Water’s grappling of the wet wipes issue began with an increasing trend in faults at sewage pumping stations across its 12,000 square kilometre operational area.
It was found that these faults were largely attributable to the increasing disposal of non-biodegradable wet wipes via the wastewater system. Further investigations revealed it was an escalating issue for water utilities around the world.
Sydney Water customers own another 20,000 kilometres of wastewater pipes located on their private land and we knew, anecdotally, that more customers were experiencing blockages involving wet wipes that were requiring plumbers to fix.
A new problem needed an innovative solution. But why was it happening?
In a first for the Australian water industry, Sydney Water conducted extensive customer research to better understand customers’ use of household wipes. It found:
- Approximately 1 in 3 wipes users flush wipes at least weekly;
- Hand and body wipes are the key category of wipes that are flushed;
- Packaging claims are influential – eg “flushable” is deemed as “biodegradable”;
- If users perceive products as biodegradable, they are twice as likely to flush;
- Product appearance/texture is a factor in forming perceptions (more so for younger males);
- Key target demographic is men aged 15–44 years.
The ‘Keep Wipes Out Of The Pipes’ program was launched in May 2015 to help Sydney Water engage in an active, two-way dialogue around customer behaviour and education. A key element of the communications program was simplicity in message and call to action in a novel way.
Part of the approach was to target the issue at the source, and Water Services Association of Australia, Sydney Water and many other water utilities have engaged with the wet wipes industry on the development of an ISO standard for an agreed criteria and tests for ‘flushability’.
The education program has been successful in raising awareness of the issue with our customers. Key outcomes were:
- A reduction of nearly 50% of Sydney Water customers thinking it is OK to flush wipes, indicating early progress in sustained behaviour change;
- A current cumulative media reach of over 12 million people across all formats. This includes Sydney Water and its spokespeople regularly being cited in the media, lifting individual SME profiles;
- Sydney Water’s social media reach is over one million people, at a high engagement rate, which has driven customer advocacy on the issue;
- With WSAA and other utilities, consistent delivery of key messages to sustain media coverage across Australia.
Sydney Water has also reviewed how it cleans its sewage pumping stations, resulting in an auto-flushing cycle. The direct benefits of having an automated system was a significant reduction in cleaning costs, safety risks removed, correction of other sewage pumping station faults during implementation, reduction in odour complaints and no major capital outlay for equipment or construction.
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