Unblocking the wet wipe problem

Sector experts have told Utility Week it is time for water companies to consider prosecuting customers who repeatedly cause blockages by flushing wet wipes or pouring oils down the sink.

However, others have argued a sustained national educational campaign is the right step to influence consumer behaviour around unflushable items.

Wastewater companies spend around £100 million each year unclogging pipes and sewers to prevent damage to networks and fatbergs, as well as leading to serious pollution incidents.

Blockages are largely formed by wetwipes and other unflushables fused together by congealed fats, oils and greases (FOG) poured down household and non-domestic sinks and drains.

Changing consumer habits is therefore crucial to eliminating these blockages. The role of water consumers cannot be understated in minimising unflushables entering systems in the first place. Education is often cited as the key to change habits but the pace of improvement from dedicated campaigns suggests a step change in thinking is required.

The inaugural Utility Week Innovate Pollution Management, Mitigation and Risk conference last month in Birmingham generated lively discussions on approaches to communicate messages with billpayers in clear, simple but non-patronising ways.

Southern Water’s FOG and unflushables manager Elvira Gabos led the session with a case study of the behavioural science techniques employed in Southern’s western region around Havant – a blockage hotspot.

She explained 70% of blockages were caused by customer behaviour from a mixture of FOGs, sanitary items and wipes being improperly disposed of.

Gabos explained the company worked with a customer insight expert who layered socio-economic data of Havant including vulnerability and deprivation together with a heat map of where blockages occurred.

In more deprived areas there were higher blockages, which meant Southern could target messaging and campaigns to communities in these areas in a meaningful, visible way. This included letters to older people and harnessing social media platforms to reach younger groups. Unfortunately the work was interrupted by the pandemic so its efficacy was difficult to measure, Gabos explained.

The presentation sparked debate from delegates across the sector. Their anonymised ideas had some common themes around keeping the messaging simple with a clear call to action.

One group believed the sector needed to be more proactive and had “allowed itself to be beaten” for too long by maintaining a distance from public and political discussions. They said without a central representative, water companies had been “fighting in smaller pockets” where collaboration would be more powerful.

Other groups believed tougher action than has been previously deployed would be warranted and queried the best way to enforce powers held by water companies to fine repeat offenders.

One delegate mentioned a device used by Northumbrian Water called the Barbarian that helped teams of technicians pinpoint homes that contribute to localised blockages. The teams could then speak with householders directly to let them know what to avoid flushing and how their actions impact the area.

This technique was effective, but resource intensive so delegates recognised it may be less appropriate to roll out in larger areas. One delegate suggested that merely the knowledge or “fear” that the company was employing such a technique could change behaviour within a community.

One group suggested prosecutions for repeat offenders as an appropriate response that water companies have yet to deploy. They reasoned that communications and messaging did not always work to change behaviours. However, others questioned how well it would play out reputationally for the companies if this tactic were to be rolled out. “There must be a better way than to prosecute domestic customers,” one delegate mused, adding that perhaps the threat alone would be sufficient to influence choices.

Participants discussed how community groups, trusted campaigners and figureheads could be effective partners to spread messaging to groups who previous communications approaches have not been effective.

With blockages tightly linked to bathroom habits, the point was raised that peer-pressure may be less effective because these actions take place behind closed doors. The groups did however still believe that spreading the message it was socially unacceptable to contribute to pollution by flushing items would change hearts and minds. “We all throw a sneaky wipe because no one sees you in the bathroom,” one participant admitted.

A delegate living in Scotland praised Scottish Water’s Nature Calls television and radio campaign and called for similar approach south of the border. Together with leaflets to all customers, the campaign explicitly sets out what items should not be flushed down the loo or disposed of in a sink or drain with the tagline: “When nature calls, there’s a world to save. Please bin the wipes and join the wave.”

It was suggested such a campaign may have greater resonance with a figurehead from outside of the industry – following the success of 1970s road safety campaigns with footballers delivering key messages.

This would need to be sustained, several people pointed out, to ensure householders did not revert to bad habits when not reminded about it. Although these messages should be simple, one group pointed out, graphic images could be a powerful weapon, especially to educate and inform people of what happens to their wetwipes and where sanitary products could end up if flushed. Groups suggested that highlighting the damage caused in local areas and sharing images of these within communities would be a stark reminder of how everyone’s “private” bathroom habits have real-world impacts.

On education, one group questioned whether the terminology used to discuss the problem was appropriate: “Does ‘blockage’ imply damage to a local river? No it doesn’t,” they pointed out, and suggested the cause and effect needed clearer messaging to be more effective at changing behaviour.