Campaign on being ‘poo-pared’ makes a splash at Emergency Media and Public Affairs Awards

Wednesday 8 November 2023

A public education campaign highlighting an emergency sanitation plan developed by an interagency team, including members of the university, has won an Emergency Media and Public Affairs (EMPA) Excellence in Communication award for readiness and resilience.

The star of the campaign - a giant inflatable poo emoji named Poonelope.

The 2023 EMPA Awards took place near the end of October to recognise those who have made an active contribution to Aotearoa New Zealand’s emergency communications. The emergency sanitation campaign aimed to increase awareness around the vulnerability of the Wellington region’s sanitation network after an earthquake and encourage the public to be prepared to manage their own toilet waste for at least a month following a large one. The campaign’s social media content was viewed 443,149 times across the six-week running period.

Behind the campaign and the large inflatable poo emoji named ‘Poonelope’ which travelled across the region to spread awareness, was a joint effort between Wellington Region Emergency Management Office (WREMO), the region’s nine councils, solid waste managers, Te Whatu Ora, Wellington Water and Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa Massey University, to develop an evidence-based plan for the region.

School of Health Sciences Associate Professor Carol Stewart and Joint Centre for Disaster Research PhD candidate Richard Mowll played a significant role in producing the underlying science of the emergency sanitation plan.

Specialising in disaster environmental health, Dr Stewart says the foundational work around emergency sanitation has been developing over the last few years at Massey.

“It started with a student project by Matt Brenin which involved trialling the effectiveness of reducing pathogen loads in toilet waste using composting toilet systems. A trial carried out in 2019 identified a promising approach of composting human waste using pine shavings, making it safer to handle and dispose of. Then Richard Mowll enrolled for his PhD with his thesis focused on developing planning emergency levels of service for lifetime utilities, which helps the public know what they need to prepare for after a major disaster. It also highlights how emergency managers need to be ready for situations where the community can’t meet their own needs.”

The Wellington region is crossed by many active faults, making it highly vulnerable to earthquakes and creating the possibility for lengthy outages of wastewater and road networks. With these outages potentially spanning months, people would need to manage their own waste over this time.

Dr Stewart says creating an emergency sanitation plan for Wellington was both vital and challenging.

“It’s surprisingly difficult to plan emergency sanitation for a region such as Wellington which has varied topography. In flat areas such as the Hutt Valley, the best solution is for people to dig long drops in their back yards to prevent them having to move the waste again. However, this isn’t a viable option for many living in Wellington’s hill suburbs or in apartments or places with limited outdoor space. Deploying Portaloos and chemical toilets, like what was done after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake, would be difficult in Wellington as it would involve road access which can be badly affected by earthquake damage and extensive landslides. There are other associated challenges with the use of Portaloos and chemical toilets including the difficulties of collecting and treating the waste, supply being unable to meet demand and poor safety and maintenance conditions.”

To advance emergency sanitation planning for the region and establish practical emergency sanitation options, Mr Mowll, who is also the project manager of the Wellington Lifelines Group, facilitated workshops with project partners, community groups and mana whenua.

“Through a series of multiagency workshops, we were able to identify that the best solution for Wellington’s hill suburbs is the two-bucket solution. One bucket for wee and another for poo, which helps to reduce the smell. The wee bucket can be emptied in gardens or other green spaces while the poo bucket is covered with dry mulch, such as leaves, sawdust or shredded newspaper, and can either be disposed of by burying in gardens or in sturdy rubbish bags to be collected with regular rubbish,” Dr Stewart says.

“It was important to recognise during these sessions that not everyone will be able to manage this system, so we identified other options for folk who have accessibility needs or limited mobility.”

While the initial work attracted some attention at the time, Dr Stewart says it really hit its stride through the public education campaign.

“Our work at Massey created a strong, evidence-based foundation for the campaign which has been a team effort every step of the way, with a strong partnership between Massey, WREMO, local councils, Wellington Water, Regional Public Health and other community representatives. It’s thorough in its attention to detail such as providing alternative options for people with limited mobility, well-integrated with public health advice and based on extensive consultation across the sector.”

Dr Stewart says WREMO’s communications team did a spectacular job at getting the message of emergency sanitation to the public.

“Emergency sanitation is an awkward subject to get the public interested in, but it is extremely important after any disaster when the risk of gastrointestinal disease outbreaks is high. The campaign did a wonderful job of taking the plan we’d created through our workshops and engaging the public in an innovative, clear and fun manner.”

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