A visiting researcher wants to get to the bottom of the yuck factor: Does framing the benefits of the use of recycled water increase acceptance of its use?

We all remember the chart of the water cycle from our days in primary school: puffy gray rain clouds in the sky, oversized blue rain drops falling on the mountains, flowing downhill across the countryside back to the ocean where it can be evaporated, condensate and precipitate once more.

But what happens to that cycle when you put humans smack dab in the middle of it? We change the flow: we consume it and use it in our homes, agriculture and industrial processes, but we also pave roads, which prevent run off and absorption into ground water aquifers. We stop the cycle – and make it necessary to find ways to recycle the water that we do have.

Estefanya Vazquez Casaubon is a visiting scholar from the University of Ghent, and she has been working alongside the researchers in the Environmental Psychology Groningen group over the past few weeks. Working together with associate professor Thijs Bouman, Estefanya is trying to come up with a communication strategy to promote acceptance of recycled water in homes in Belgium.

It may not seem like it on rainy fall days, particularly in combination with the comfort of knowing that if when you open the tap that water will flow. But Belgium is actually the third highest ranked country in Europe in terms of water scarcity.

There are four different types of water contact that Estefanya is examining with relation to recycled water: direct (drinking water), semi-direct (showering), indirect (washing clothes) and distant (toilet). Her preliminary research has found that when it comes to semi-direct, indirect and distant use, people were more willing to use recycled. “We found that this was linked to people caring and having a sense of moral obligation to protect natural resources and feeling responsible to act”, Estefanya says.

However, they were completely unwilling to consider it for direct consumption use. That’s because of the yuck factor – but it’s unclear if that comes from knowing too little about what recycled water is, or knowing too much about it.

The current Belgian approach raises a question: Does actually directly experiencing water scarcity – turning on the tap and no water coming out – have an impact on people’s reluctance to use recycled water?

Evidence from nations with clearer proof of their water scarcity – such as the United States and Australia – suggests that it does. There is wider acceptance in Australia of the use of recycled water, not just out of absolute necessity, but also because of other environmental benefits, such as keeping partially treated water out of the continent’s beloved but endangered coral reefs.

As Estefanya jokingly puts it, water is “dinosaur pee” – “it was here before us.” That is to say, water in earth’s atmosphere has already been recycled for millions of years, with the difference that we managed to accelerate the process.

Another potential selling point to persuade people who have reservations about using recycled water is the fact that it’s actually tested based on higher purity standards than normal tap water, precisely because it is recycled.

So now the task is looking into different potential strategies that could help to overcome disgust. That may be appealing to more altruistic or biospheric values – it’s good for other people, and it’s good for the planet – although such an approach might be less effective when addressing a primal, gut feeling. But what approach to take and which values to appeal to are still being defined.

Once that aspects are decided upon, the next step will be coming up with communications campaigns – visuals and wording – that can increase acceptance of using recycled water, and potentially informing the Belgian populace that even though it may seem like there’s water, water, everywhere, there may not actually be a drop to drink – unless it’s recycled.

Estefanya’s time with us at EP Groningen is drawing to a close, but if you’re intrigued and want to follow her research as it progresses, you find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Photo credit: Nithin PA/Pexels