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How strategic communications can make or break public support in water conservation efforts

Hannah Schwalberg


A combination of climate change and population growth is posing a major threat to the United States’ water supply. New research¹ suggests that within 50 years, nearly half of the country’s 204 freshwater basins will fail to meet monthly demand. The reality is sooner: 40 states are currently experiencing some form of drought².


Overcoming The “Yuck Factor”

Water reuse³ is a rather sustainable solution with high potential, so long as agencies are dedicated to overcoming the “Yuck Factor,” the knee-jerk reaction of disgust that results from the thought of drinking reclaimed wastewater. Comprehensive public outreach campaigns coupled with tactical communications strategies can mitigate the “Yuck Factor,” and ultimately influence the public to embrace recycled wastewater for potable use.


Public Education and Outreach Campaigns

Public education and outreach campaigns have been proven to be very effective when it comes to public acceptance around water reuse. In a Stanford research study⁴, it was found that learning about existing potable-use recycled wastewater programs and the multistage purification process can garner public support of recycled wastewater. Offering tours of the facility and samples of the finished product is an effective way for agencies to engage the community and gain their support.


Use Emotion over Reason

Penn psychologist Dr. Paul Rozin– who specializes in disgust and contamination– suggests taking an emotional approach⁵ instead of a rational one is a better communications strategy to sell the idea of this water. Recycled wastewater is often higher quality than the water it originated as, but an argument of its chemical purity is no match for the emotional response that the water may still be contaminated due to its history.


Furthermore, Dr. Paul Slovic, PhD, who specializes in risk perception, recommends⁶ emphasizing the benefits of water reuse. While this may seem obvious, there is a deeper psychological rationale: this tactic capitalizes on the “human tendency to minimize risk when dealing with something considered to be positive, rather than to conduct a rational cost-benefit analysis.”


The Power of Word Choice

Word choice is a key factor when it comes to conceptually separating the waste from the water and removing negative connotations around water reuse. In California, the “from toilet to tap'' moniker advertised reclaimed wastewater, evoking imagery that seemed to strengthen the “Yuck Factor.” A randomized experiment done by Stanford⁷ revealed the consequences of this poor communications tactic. People in Group T1 were educated about Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System, which the utility described as “the world’s largest water purification system for indirect potable reuse,” and learned that this concept was referred to as “from toilet to tap.” Group T2 was given additional positive information about the treatment process, and the “toilet to tap” moniker was dropped. The research found⁸ that group T2 was more willing to drink the recycled wastewater.


Singapore: A Success Story - 40% of the nation’s water supply comes from recycled water.

Singapore’s successful reclaimed wastewater efforts can be attributed to⁹ the execution of strategy that combines tactical communication techniques and education programs.



Image from Unsplash


Singapore’s communications to the public was tactical: instead of conveying the water as reclaimed wastewater, the water was called NEWater to allow people to frame out its origins. Singapore’s NEWater plant provides the nation with 3 million gallons of drinking water daily. The reclaimed water facility launched an “award-winning public information campaign prior to its opening.” The outreach effectively eliminated mental barriers: to make reclaimed water more palatable, the facility shared that it injects the treated water into natural reservoirs. NEWater associated with environmental organizations, which increased the facility's credibility and reinforces public trust. The NEWater facility produced educational campaigns that emphasized the benefits of using recycled wastewater. The facility highlighted using recycled water could contribute to the country’s economic success, maintaining that Singapore's dependence on nearby Malaysia's rivers could be mitigated through recycled water. The treatment plant has a visitors center that continues to frame use of reclaimed water in a beneficial light to further push a positive narrative to the public.


United States agencies planning to roll out recycled wastewater utilities for potable use can look to Singapore as the blueprint for strategic messaging as they aim to garner public acceptance around water reuse and reduce the pressures that America’s freshwater basins face today.



Heggie, J. (2021, May 3). Why is America running out of water? Science. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/partner-content-americas-looming-water-crisis


O'Connell-Domenech, A. (2022, July 12). 40 states experiencing some form of drought. The Hill. https://thehill.com/changing-america/sustainability/environment/3554021-over-three-quarters-of-u-s-states-experiencing-some-form-of-drought/


Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Basic Information about Water Reuse. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/waterreuse/basic-information-about-water-reuse


Hui, I., & Cain, B. E. (2016, January 2). Overcoming psychological resistance toward using recycled water as a Solution to California’s Climate Change Challenge https://west.stanford.edu/sites/west/files/recycled_agriwaterhui_cain.pdf


Dingfelder, S. F. (2004, September). From toilet to tap. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep04/toilet


Dingfelder, S. F. (2004, September). From toilet to tap. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep04/toilet


Tobin, M. (2017, October 17). Stanford Recycled Water Study probes public opinion. waterpolls.org. https://waterpolls.org/stanford-recycled-water-study/


Hui, I., & Cain, B. E. (2016, January 2). Overcoming psychological resistance toward using recycled water as a Solution to California’s Climate Change Challenge https://west.stanford.edu/sites/west/files/recycled_agriwaterhui_cain.pdf


Dingfelder, S. F. (2004, September). From toilet to tap. Monitor on Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/sep04/toilet



Disclaimer: All information, content and materials on this blog are for general information purposes only. Any opinion expressed by the author is not necessarily the opinion of Penn Club H2O or University of Pennsylvania.

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