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New Icon Water campaign urges Canberrans to "Free the Poo"

To help Canberrans proactively maintain the health of their wastewater networks, Icon Water has launched a new drain care campaign that encourages the community to think twice about what they put down the drain or flush down the toilet.

Planned in stages across multiple years, the "Free the Poo" campaign aims to foster long-term wastewater literacy in the community by raising awareness around how a customer’s own plumbing, the network and treatment plants are all impacted by what gets flushed or tipped down the drain.

Icon Water’s General Manager Customer Engagement Davina McCormick said Canberra has been ranked as one of the worst Australian cities when it comes to total sewer breaks and blockages.

“We spend about $1.7 million clearing blockages in the network every year, but that doesn’t count the things we need to do within our treatment plants to remove all of the things that shouldn’t go down the drain,” she said.

“While this problem is not unique to Icon Water, we are significantly impacted in the ACT. We are called the bush capital for a reason. Canberra has about 48,000 trees lining its streets and we are also facing a drying climate.

“When our trees get thirsty, they look for sources of water, and our sewer pipes are very popular with trees. Tree roots incur into our network and when things like wet wipes are flushed down the toilet, they then wrap around those tree roots, which makes our blockages worse.”

McCormick said Icon Water has a program to proactively maintain and clear the sewer network, completing 216 km in 2019-20, but the campaign will help empower the community to ensure unnecessary blockages don’t become a reality.

“Through this campaign, we are looking to work with our community to help redirect flushing behaviours. When our teams are doing the work of clearing blockages from our infrastructure, it’s taking them away from other work they could be doing to maintain the network,” she said.

“We see the campaign as an opportunity to work in consultation with our community to reduce the impact of blockages altogether.”

New approach to an old problem

McCormick said the campaign is not Icon Water’s first attempt to redirect community behaviours around flushing, but that Free the Poo has been designed to account for past lessons about how best to engage with customers.

“We have found in the past that giving the community a list of things they should or shouldn’t do hasn’t been engaging enough. We are competing for our customers' attention with every other business in Australia. Our new campaign focuses on messaging that is creative and gets people to listen,” she said.

“Our research started with a really broad cross-section of people from our business who have anything to do with our sewer network: people from education, customer insights, communications, treatment plant operators, trade waste, customer service and our people who work in the field.

“We brought them all together to develop a list of all the different issues that occur in relation to drain care, including what we would like our customers to do, or not to do.”

Staff focus groups helped prioritise the behavioural changes the utility would engage the community with first during the campaign, McCormick said.

“Through this prioritisation exercise, we found wet wipes was one of the largest challenges that our teams were facing. Wet wipes are a problem that has been building over time as people have moved towards convenience products, but also different ways of cleaning,” she said.

“We knew the messaging needed to be simple, fun and engaging. While we think sewage is incredibly interesting, we need to take our messaging concepts to the community to test them with people who aren't as obsessed with wastewater.”

Icon Water conducted some community focus groups to understand what works, what doesn’t, and what messaging was easiest for customers to connect with.

“We are very passionate about what we do in the water sector, but we can’t assume that our passion is shared by the broader community,” McCormick said.

“We put forward a few different versions of our radio jingle to community focus groups. We tried a few different genres and we let our focus groups decide. And there was a clear winner, which is the "Free the Poo" song currently playing on the radio today.”

But the campaign isn’t limited to radio. Other elements include public relations, social media and public advertisements, including bus wraps and outdoor billboards in shopping precincts.

“We also have some community events planned, which have been impacted by recent lockdowns. But we are looking forward to inviting the community to join us once it is safe to do so,” McCormick said.

“We are also working on developing an interactive game for kids to help them engage with wastewater literacy,”

Lasting improvements

The Free the Poo campaign is set to run for a number of years. While the initial focus has been to reduce the amount of wet wipes within the wastewater network, Icon Water also plans to tackle sanitary products and other trade waste materials. 

“We identified quite a long list of issues when we engaged with our staff. While building awareness around wet wipes is the first part of the campaign, we plan to take on feminine hygiene products next,” she said.

“But we have some research work to do before we take on that challenge. Following that, we will take on things like fats and oils, and trade waste, taking a close look at how we can help our community avoid putting those things down the drain, too.”

Taking a staged approach to different drain health issues is key to Icon Water’s new campaign, which aims to achieve more robust and lasting water literacy within the community.

“We are shifting away from the idea that we need to tell everyone everything all at once. We are aiming to progressively build and foster community awareness and wastewater literacy. We want to address all the things other than the "Three Ps" — pee, poo and paper,” McCormick said.

“This long-term approach enables us to learn as we go, and tweak our messaging to help develop more understanding within our community.

“We do a regular perception survey with our community, asking them about the campaign. After two weeks, we had 10% unprompted awareness of our campaign, and 46% prompted. That’s a really encouraging start, after just two weeks, but we are in this for the long-term.”

McCormick said Icon Water is dedicated to fostering genuine behavioural changes, but is aware that meeting this challenge will take time, and a lot of listening.

“We want to create genuine behavioural changes, which will take time. We plan to change and adapt to what’s happening within the community, but our primary aim is to help Canberrans look after the sewage network,” she said.

“It’s everyone’s network, and it’ll take all of us together to maintain the health of our sewage network.”