Some advice on promoting Direct Potable Reuse

facing-the-yuck-factorDirect Potable Reuse is a hot topic in areas where alternative sources of water are becoming scarce.

There is a lot of fear in the industry because customers are not likely to accept this solution easily, due to our learnt attitude towards faecal matter, also known as the Yuck Factor.

Promoting Direct Potable Reuse

Water utilities have tried a wide range of strategies to convince communities to promote drinking recycled water. The general advice is to educate customers about the process. One of the rules of social marketing is, however, that rational appeals to change attitudes are not very effective. Clear examples of this practice are the many anti-smoking or anti-speeding ads that use emotional appeals to modify the viewer’s attitude towards smoking or speeding.

Some commentators recommend using euphemisms for recycled sewerage such as ‘impaired water’ instead of polluted water. Some of these are weasel words and should not be used as people see through the ruse.

Singapore is one country which effectively implemented Direct Potable Reuse (DPR). However, comparisons with Singapore are not easy since due to cultural differences between this country and Anglo-Saxon countries. Salient differences in culture can be identified using the system defined by Geert Hofstede:

Cultural differences between Singapore, Australia and the United States.

Cultural differences between Singapore, Australia and the United States.

  • Power Distance: the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations within a country expect and accept that power is distributed unequally.
  • Individualism: the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members
  • Masculinity: the level of interdependence a society maintains among its members.
  • Uncertainty Avoidance: The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these.
  • Pragmatism: the extent to which people attach more importance to the future, fostering pragmatic values towards rewards, including saving and capacity for adaptation.
  • Indulgence: the extent to which people try to control their desires and impulses.

The data shows that the cultural profile of Australia and the USA are very similar. There are, however, notable differences between the cultures of Singapore and Australia/USA that need to be taken into consideration when comparing DPR acceptance in these countries.

The Power Distance level for Singapore is almost double of that in the other countries. Power distance influences the acceptance of government initiatives, such as DPR. The higher the level of Power Distance, the more likely a proposal is accepted.

The level of Individualism in Singapore is much lower than in Western countries in general. A small degree of individualism would make acceptance of initiatives such as DPR easier to implement because of the perceived public benefits. In Western countries, the high level of individualism complicates social marketing due to a large number of segments that need to be targeted to obtain coverage over a whole population.

The Masculinity dimension is almost the same in all three countries, which has thus no impact on differences in acceptance.

The low level of Uncertainty Avoidance predicts that people in Singapore feel much less threatened by the novelty of DPR than in countries with a high level.

The high degree of pragmatism in Singaporean society points towards a future-oriented view of water resources that includes thrift and a sense of saving for the future. This dimension is much less in Australia and the USA.

Finally, the Indulgence dimension is not very different between the countries.

This comparison shows that firstly, understanding the value system of the consumers in the service area is essential to be able to craft an effective campaign for the acceptance of Direct Potable Reuse. Secondly, it shows that we cannot use an example used in one location and transpose that approach to another location.

Using Marketing to Manage the Acceptance of Recycled Water

Marketing recycled water by colouring the pipes purpleRecent droughts across the globe have motivated a lot of technological innovation in water services. One common strategy to manage water, commonly used by Australian water utilities, is to add a third pipe system. In these areas, customers have access to drinking water, sewerage and recycled water. The reasoning for this development is that access to non-potable recycled water will offset the need to use drinking water for toilet flushing, gardening and similar applications.

While this is an interesting development that seems like a great solution to water shortages, from a marketing perspective, there are some issues with the introduction of dual water supply into houses.

Firstly, following the principles of the Invisible Water Utility, the quality of service can be measured by the amount of time a customer needs enjoying the service. Having two separate taps for two different purposes reduces service quality because of the effort required in owning a dual supply. However, it can be argued that sustainability trumps convenience and that recycled water is necessary. If that is the case, how can we use marketing principles to maximise service quality in recycled water?

Marketing Recycled Water

The introduction of non-potable water to houses goes against the grain of what water utilities have achieved over the past 150 years. Recycled water poses a health risk to through accidental consumption caused by faulty plumbing. To mitigate this risk, water utilities and regulators have developed very strict regulations with regards to the installation of the purple pipe.

In marketing, the use of perception is a standard method to influence consumer attitudes and behaviours. What can water utilities learn from this?

Recycled water is inspected more than gas and electricity

In the state of Victoria, all recycled water installations are inspected three to four times before being used by customers. Even after people have moved into their house, they will receive visits from recycled water inspector on a regular basis. This regime of inspections sends decreases service quality because of the inconvenience, but more importantly sends a wrong message to users of recycled water by emphasising risk rather than the opportunity.

Third Pipe System

Third Pipe System (Source: Victorian Building Authority).

Why does recycled water need to be inspected so often when the potentially deadly electricity and gas supplies are regulated using a far less strict regime? The health risk to a faulty electricity or gas connection is exponentially higher than the danger of consuming recycled water. The rigorous inspection regime communicates to customers that they are dealing with a potentially lethal substance, which is of course not the case. This strategy also has the risk of lowering the acceptance of potential future potable re-use of sewerage.

A more subtle way used to manage the risk of recycled water is the distinctive lilac colour used for all recycled water plumbing. This colour signal is a very clear branding of the service, which is easy to communicate, without exaggerating the risks.

Can we extend this principle and add a non-toxic, environmentally friendly colour to the water? Can we create lilac recycled water? Unfortunately, this is not an option because it would reduce the acceptability for recycled water used in toilets and washing machines. The advertising language surrounding toilets is about sparkling white bowls, without any trace of colour.

Perhaps another strategy to manage the risk of recycled water being consumed by people is to add a pungent taste to the water. Adding offensive smell is the approach used in natural gas supply, where an odorant is added to enable users to detect leaks. A bad taste can be readily associated with health risk. Adding a strong flavour to recycled water would prevent any user from drinking the water and enables detecting cross connections.

Using this simple technique reduces the need for extensive inspection regimes and increases the detection likelihood of plumbing issues because every customer automatically becomes a continuous monitoring device, rather than relying on regular formal inspections.

Weasel words in water utilities: Sanitising public language

Weasel words are often used by demagogues, politicians and marketers to disguise what they are saying. A tax becomes a levy, we no longer just live, we have a lifestyle and sacking people becomes downsizing. They are weasel words because they suck the meaning out of language, just like a weasel sucks eggs.1

This type of language is, unfortunately also familiar with water utilities. What used to be a sewage treatment plant is now a water reclamation facility, removing any reference to its origins. Sewerage Sludge is magically transformed to a ‘biosolid’, ensuring that the average person has no idea what its provenance is. These new terms suck all meaning from the original words.

Sanitising public language

In a recent article in Water21, the magazine for the International Water Association, John Baten proposed to take ‘evolve’ the language used by water professionals to even deeper levels of befuddlement, as evidenced by the table below.

Weasel words in the water utility sector

Weasel words in the water utility sector.2

Some of these suggestions are even sucking the life out of the existing weasel words. To call a sewage treatment plant a ‘renew enterprise’ is confusing and deceptive. The regeneration—excuse me for using one of these terms—of treated effluent to Star-rated water is a total obfuscation of reality and removes water users even further away from the problems in our water supply chain.

Having said this, a careful choice of words is important. Empirical research demonstrated that framing ‘treated wastewater’ as ‘recycled water’ changed perceptions of the product by consumers and increased their willingness to use and to pay for the service.3

The removal of any reference to poo in the case of treated sewage circumvents the Yuck Factor—the psychological mechanism that prevents people from accepting treated sewage as drinking water. But this is nothing more than a cheap magic trick that will not be able to deceive water users into accepting what they know to be the truth. An example of direct communication about sewerage is the Twitter feed of Daniel Gerling, who is preparing a book on the cultural history of excrement. His language is clear and straightforward, and the impact of his word choice forces people to face the issue.

This type of language will be more harmful than helpful in our industry. Only by calling things by their proper name can we educate consumers about the water cycle and move forward in securing water for the future.


  1. Don Watson, Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words (Knopf, 2004). 

  2. Baten III, J. (2014). One Water: Uniting around a new water language. Water 21, (February), 12–16. 

  3. Menegaki, A. N., Mellon, R. C., Vrentzou, A., Koumakis, G., & Tsagarakis, K. P. (2009). What’s in a name: Framing treated wastewater as recycled water increases willingness to use and willingness to pay. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30(3), 285–292. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2008.08.007

The Yuck Factor: The Psychology of Drinking Recycled Water

Swimming in sewage

The Yuck Factor: Swimming in Sewage (Source: The Age).

Using sewage to create drinking water, or recycled water is a controversial topic in many parts of the world, especially in places where drought has forced utilities to develop alternative sources of tap water. In 2006 the Australian city of Toowoomba faced an extreme water supply problem and held a referendum asking its citizens whether recycled water should be added to the potable supply. This referendum led to emotional outbursts, and the proposal was eventually rejected. Some commentators on this event referred to the so-called ‘yuck factor’, which is an emotional reaction of repugnance towards certain foods and medicines. This article explores a psychological mechanism that causes this response and provides some suggestions on how to effectively promote the idea of using sewage to create drinking water.

The importance of origin

From a marketing point of view, using treated sewage to create drinking water is a proposition that ‘s hard to sell to customers. The origin of water is the most important aspect of the marketing of water, a concept masterfully used by bottled water companies. The importance of the (perceived) source of water was illustrated in a study which investigated whether there is a difference in willingness to pay depending on the name of a water service. The research found that customers had a higher willingness to pay for “recycled water” than for “treated waste water”.1 Although the study indicates that there are differences in valuation based on perceived origin of the water, no explanation was provided for this phenomenon.

The psychology of disgust

There is no rational reason to oppose using sewage to create tap water. Regardless of technology, the natural water cycle ensures that all sewage will eventually become fresh water and most likely will find its way to somebody’s tap. Human psychology is, however, more complicated than this simple rational line of thought.

Our deep-seated negative overall attitude towards faeces leads us to maintain a negative attitude towards anything that is related to it, including recycled water. Rationally speaking this is a fallacy and known as the Wisdom of Repugnance, or the yuck factor.  People arguing against recycled water use a non-rational ‘appeal to disgust’. They believe that an intuitive negative response to something should be interpreted as evidence for the intrinsically dangerous character of that thing. Although this is not considered a rational argument, it is nevertheless valid because we cannot simply ignore our innate psychological drives.

The psychological mechanism at work is the well-known principle of classical conditioning, also known as the Pavlov Reflex. Our cultural surroundings largely condition our tastes. Psychologists have researched these issues in detail. Faeces are a universal disgust substance that is deeply seated within our psychological make-up. This disgust is, however, not innate—we develop this feeling of disgust through conditioning2

Yuck Factor online laboratory

To better understand this mechanism, follow the instructions in the online lab test displayed below. Click on the Begin button on the right. No data will be collected in this test.

What we see in this experiment is that context in which the bowl is placed influences the attractiveness of the soup. None of the changes to the soup did, however, rationally modify the soup in any way. This experiment is based on the same principle behind the idea to use a special spoon to serve food to your pet—there is no rational reason to do so, but the perception of disgust is strong enough to motivate people to buy special spoons for their pets.

This experiment can be repeated using different water scenarios: straight from a spring, from a treatment plant, sourced from sewerage, downstream of a sewerage treatment plant and so on. This type of research should be conducted as it would assist utilities to sell better the proposition of using purified sewerage as drinking water.

Marketing recycled water

Although repugnance is a deep-seated psychological mechanism, the precise nature of the disgust mechanism is culturally determined. Just because a psychological mechanism is at work does not mean that it is hard-wired in our brain. Classically conditioned responses can be extinguished and reprogrammed. This change can, however, not be achieved by appealing to reason, as some industry experts proclaim.3

Recycled water attitudeMarketing recycled water is a delicate art. The repugnance against faeces is too deeply seated to be extinguished by reason alone. The most effective advertising to change attitudes does not appeal to reason—don’t try to convince your customers by telling them how great your treatment plants are. The best analogies to this problem are anti-smoking or safe driving campaigns. The most effective campaigns are those that appeal to non-rational aspects of smoking or speeding.

Given the intense disgust related to sewerage, telling people that they should drink and shower in recycled water will immediately activate the Pavlovian disgust reflex. The most effective way to sell the idea of using sewerage to create potable is to increase the level of trust customers have in the organisation, using origin strategies. Don’t emphasise the sewerage aspect of the water or the high-tech treatment facilities—emphasise the natural water cycle by using emotive images of pristine water flows. Focusing on the non-rational aspects of water consumption will increase customers’ involvement with utilities and ultimately have a positive influence on their perceptions of quality and trust in the organisation.4

What do you think? How can we make using recycled water as potable water acceptable?

Notes


  1. Menegaki, A. N., Mellon, R. C., Vrentzou, A., Koumakis, G., & Tsagarakis, K. P. (2009). What’s in a name: Framing treated wastewater as recycled water increases willingness to use and willingness to pay. Journal of Economic Psychology, 30(3), 285–292. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2008.08.007

  2. Rozin, P., Haidt, J., & McCauley, C.R. (2008). Disgust in M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones & L.F. Barrett (eds.), Handbook of emotions, 3rd ed. (pp. 755–776). New York: Guilford Press. 

  3. Russell, S., & Lux, C. (2009). Getting over yuck: moving from psychological to cultural and sociotechnical analyses of responses to water recycling. Water Policy, 11(1), 21. doi:10.2166/wp.2009.007

  4. Cohen (2000). Consumer involvement–driving up the cost. Consumer Policy Review, 10(4), 122–125; Espejel, Fandos & Flavián (2009). The influence of consumer involvement on quality signals perception: An empirical investigation in the food sector. British Food Journal, 111(11), 1212–1236.