Phoenix suburb encourages residents to “Be G.R.O.S.S.”

June 28, 2019


“Be G.R.O.S.S.,” an innovative outreach campaign developed by the Surprise (Ariz.) Water Resources Management department (WRM), takes a light-hearted approach to teaching customers about the consequences of improperly discarding “flushable” wipes and fats, oils, and grease down household drains and toilets. Photo courtesy of WRM.

A new public education campaign is relying on social media, community outreach and kid-friendly messaging to motivate residents of a Phoenix suburb to rethink their waste disposal habits.

Developed by the Water Resource Management (WRM) department in Surprise, Ariz., the campaign invites residents to “Be G.R.O.S.S” — that is, Guardians Regarding Our Sewer System. It aims to change behavior by teaching customers exactly what happens when fats, oil, and grease (FOG), flushable wipes, and other pipe-damaging items are disposed in household drainage systems or flushed down toilets.

Be G.R.O.S.S grew out of the department’s frustration with the high-cost maintenance associated with ill-advised flushing.

“We were dealing with a lot of debris that clogs up lines and damages equipment,” explained Reynaldo Aldava Jr., wastewater manager for Surprise.

In one case, Surprise WRM staff, its contractors, and a wastewater centrifuge manufacturer spent weeks and $40,000 to identify the reason for a 44% drop in solids process flow at one of the city’s two water resource recovery facilities (WRRFs). The cause: a 0.6-m-by-0.7-m (2-ft-by-2.5-ft) toy sign that bypassed the screens at the plant’s entrance and become lodged in the centrifuge’s feed zone.


Why Be G.R.O.S.S.?

Errant toy signs at a WRRF may be rare. But other damage-causing culprits are common and can be easily avoided with better habits.

The Be G.R.O.S.S. campaign — that is, Guardians Regarding Our Sewer System — includes practical and educational giveaways. For example, these creative scrapers raise awareness about fats, oils, and grease risks. Photo courtesy of WRM.

“People hear ‘flushable wipe,’ and they think it’s okay to flush them down a toilet,” said Aldava. “Just because something can be flushed doesn’t mean it should.”  Wipes and FOG, he noted, are major causes of residential clogs and overflows in homes, as well as WRRFs.

To help spread the word, Surprise WRM formed a committee to brainstorm messaging and low-cost methods of community outreach. The result was a campaign that includes supervillain characters representing Fat, Oil, and Grease, straight-forward, factual messages (e.g., “Dental floss and floss picks are to be disposed in the trash, NOT the toilet.”), and practical giveaways – all under the banner of “Be G.R.O.S.S.”

Since launching on social media in January 2019, the educational campaign has gone on the road to schools and city functions. “School kids love the food scrapers we hand out with the message to scrape fat and grease off dishes, rather than wash it down the drain,” Aldava said.


Keeping Costs Low and Awareness High

The Be G.R.O.S.S. campaign introduces a colorful cast of characters that capture the attention of both children and adults. WRM hopes the campaign will drive down maintenance costs associated with headworks clogs from improper waste disposal. Photo courtesy of WRM.

Prior to launching “Be G.R.O.S.S., the city upgraded the screens at the headworks of its primary 16.3-mgd WRRF. The $500,000 investment improved the WRRF’s ability to capture debris before it enters the plant, explained Aldava. It also is helping to reduce the $300,000 the city had been spending annually on equipment repairs.

And while that is all good news, the improved screening comes at cost. “Hardly anything gets by these screens,” he said. “Because they capture a lot more than the old ones, our hauling costs to the landfill have gone up.” 

“By reaching out to the public and teaching them better disposal habits, we hope to reduce those costs,” he said.

                                                                                    — Mary Bufe, WEF Highlights

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