Case Study

Mindful Waste Disposal

The Challenge

In 2017, 70% of sewer backups in New York City were traced to the build-up of fats, oils, and grease that were poured down toilets and drains. This build-up causes extensive damage, impedes critical operations, and costs the City hundreds of millions of dollars each year to address.

The Department of Environmental Protection enlisted Zebra Strategies to test a new campaign encouraging New Yorkers to change their behaviors and think about what they pour down the sink or flush down their toilets.

Our Initial Findings

To gain insight into the flushing habits of New Yorkers, Zebra Strategies conducted focus groups targeting English- and Spanish-speaking New Yorkers who identified as users of disposable wipes. We discovered several key insights:

  • Those who flush wipes and cooking oil had not given thought to what happens after the materials leave their homes’ pipes—they are mainly concerned with their own plumbing and have limited understanding of how it affects NYC’s sewer system
  • The “whole picture” is needed to help people understand the consequences of inappropriate items getting into the sewer system
  • People need to understand their alternatives to this behavior in order to curb it

Actionable Insights

Zebra’s careful research uncovered that the key to an effective campaign is to shift the framing of the issue so that viewers feel an increased responsibility towards their neighbors and the environment. We found that showing the widespread effects of individual actions is the best way to spur viewers into changing their flushing habits. The chosen campaign succeeds by bridging the cognition gap and acting as a “wake-up call.”