Making a Difference on FOG

Award-winning, globally known sewer official keeps ‘fatbergs’ top-of-mind in Ontario and beyond.

Making a Difference on FOG

Barry Orr rakes a solids bin at one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants.

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Years ago, fats, oils and grease blockages in sanitary sewers in the city of London, Ontario, posed a fairly significant problem. But those issues declined substantially after Barry Orr, aka Captain FOG, and his team developed innovative communication and outreach programs that dramatically moved the needle on public awareness.

During his 12-year tenure as sewer outreach and control inspector in the city’s Environmental and Engineering Services Division, Orr has led a variety of imaginative and whimsically humorous approaches to swaying public perceptions about FOG, with programs that build awareness about the importance of protecting the city’s roughly 869 miles of sanitary sewers.

There are programs with catchy acronyms for names, like PIE and WIPE. A FOG-reduction effort built around residents using compostable paper coffee cups has diverted 15 tons of FOG from sewer lines since 2013. Another program employs a sticker to remind people that toilets aren’t garbage cans. And those are just the tip of the fatberg, so to speak.

Along the way, Orr also has made more than 500 presentations at community events and to civic organizations, professional groups, high schools and colleges, spreading the gospel of sewer-system preservation and environmental protection.

“I’ve probably talked to more than 50,000 students from kindergarten to universities,” he says.

In addition, Orr has served for years on an international panel that’s been trying to get manufacturers to stop labeling their disposable wipes as “flushable.”

Orr’s tireless efforts, which also include podcasts and television appearances, inspired the creation of a heroic comic book character, Captain FOG, aimed at informing children about the perils of sewer abuse.

To recognize his efforts, the Water Environment Federation awarded Orr a Collections System Award in October. The honor is presented to individuals for their contributions to the advancement of state-of-the-art wastewater collections.

“Orr’s efforts on policy and innovation have contributed to his global reputation, but his ability to reach the public and communicate the importance of sewer-related issues is perhaps his greatest strength,” WEF stated in a press release. “He continuously promotes the professional recognition of the collections system field during his numerous podcasts, interviews and television appearances.

“Whether the discussion is about toilets, grease, wastewater, stormwater, ‘fatbergs’ or so-called ‘flushable products,’ Orr is pivotal in the conversation. He has tirelessly increased the awareness of and respect for sewer collections systems and personnel.”

Orr says the award is absolutely humbling, but he’s elated that the little things he’s been doing are making a difference in his community and beyond.

“It’s exhilarating that people around the globe are listening to what we’re doing here in the city of London.”

Working his way up

The London EESD hired Orr in May 1994 as an operator at one of the city’s wastewater treatment plants. He then held acting supervisor and chief operator roles until 2008, when he was asked to assume responsibility for enforcing sewer-related regulations and creating 

public-education programs.

“No one had really been communicating how important it is for the community to protect the sewer system and the value it provides,” he says. “Because sewers are underground and not visible, people don’t appreciate them — until there’s a blockage.

“So we decided to be proactive instead of reactive about communicating the importance of the sewer system and how citizens and industries and commercial sectors can help to protect it.”

To do that, Orr established an over-arching program called Protect, Inspect and Educate. One of the program’s first targets was grease interceptors, which in 2008 — the year the program started — contributed to 40% of the sanitary sewer system’s overflows.

By educating restaurant owners and food-

service operations about best practices for maintaining interceptors, along with developing a citywide inspection program, London has experienced no FOG-related overflows in five years.

“We whittled a list of 101 hot spots down to 26, for about a 75% reduction,” Orr says.

The initiative included a program called the Washing Initiative to Protect the Environment, or WIPE. This involved educational presentations that encouraged food-service establishments to stop scraping food waste off plates and down sink drains.

“We gave many, many presentations to food-

service staffs and they were very receptive,” Orr says. “This collaborative approach was very successful. In fact, Canada’s largest chain of coffee stores, Tim 

Hortons, ran a national training program for their employees based on information we provided.”

Improving compliance

In addition, the inspection program revealed that 80% of interceptors at an estimated 2,000 food-service operations were noncompliant, with parts missing or lines completely rotted-out or even removed, Orr says.

After an intense compliance campaign in which businesses were told to make interceptor repairs, noncompliance now is at about 20%. “With 2,000 locations and a small staff, it’s hard to get to all of them,” he says of the remaining noncompliant interceptors.

The compliance program also yielded another dividend. With significantly fewer emergency calls for sewer backups caused by FOG, the division is saving money on employee overtime pay for emergency-service calls. Furthermore, fewer emergencies free up employees to do other things, which boosts productivity.

“We’ve saved at least $100,000 annually in expenses because of this proactive approach. And even though the city keeps growing (it’s population is around 400,000), we haven’t had to hire new staff because we’re allocating labor more efficiently.”

The EESD also maintains a stringent cleaning and inspection program for the city’s sewer system, which in addition to sanitary sewers includes 821 miles of stormwater sewers, nearly 36,500 manholes, 32,00 catch basins, five wastewater treatment plants and 38 pumping stations.

It also features 100 stormwater management facilities that collect surface-water runoff, then release it at a controlled rate to help control erosion and flooding.

Ready to roll

For cleaning sewer lines, the division relies on three water-jetting trucks and two combination sewer trucks. Sewer Equipment CO. of America built the jetting trucks on International chassis.

Sewer Equipment also built one of the two combination sewer trucks; it features an Inter-national chassis, a 1,200-gallon water tank and a 12-cubic-yard debris tank. The other truck was outfitted by Vactor and features a 1,200-gallon water tank and a 12-cubic-yard debris tank.

“We flush about 683 miles of sanitary sewer lines a year, even though our tasks keep increasing as the city keeps expanding,” Orr says. “We’re doing really well … we have one of the highest ratings in Canada for cleaning lines and preventing overflows.”

The city also owns three catch-basin cleaning trucks built by Vacall on Freightliner chassis with 10-cubic-yard debris tanks.

Renewable energy

To reduce FOG issues on the residential side of the sewer system, Orr came up with a creative solution in 2013: The Your Turn program, centered on a 32-ounce compostable cardboard cup that residents use to collect FOG instead of putting it down drains.

When the cups are full, residents can take them to one of four so-called enviro-depots — sites where people can bring yard waste, recycle electronic devices, dispose of fluorescent light bulbs and so forth. While they’re there, residents also can pick up a new cup, Orr explains.

The program is effective: Since 2013, residents have collected an estimated 15 tons of FOG that otherwise likely would’ve gone into sewer lines, he says.

Better yet, four privately owned anaerobic-digester plants collect the full cups at the enviro-centers, then put the FOG into the digesters. A byproduct of the anaerobic digestion process is methane gas, which is used to power turbines that produce electricity.

“It’s really amazing when you think about it,” Orr says. “We’re harnessing something that was going down drains or into landfills and turning it into energy. If a resident turns in 10 cups, that produces enough electricity to power a laptop for 30 days or a refrigerator for 10 days. This is really impressive in my world — taking FOG that was causing sewer blockages and turning it into renewable energy.”

Widespread participation

So far, the EESD has distributed more than 125,000 cups, which feature instructions and fun facts printed on the exterior. The division partners with other agencies, such as libraries, churches and fire departments, to distribute the cups, which also are included in Welcome Wagon-like gift packages for new residents. In addition, community groups volunteer to collect cups at apartment buildings.

“It’s been a fascinating social experiment. We’ve even had students from environmental clubs at local schools organize cup pickups. It’s been amazing.”

The key to participation is public engagement and good communication, Orr says.

“You tell people that you want to do the right thing for the environment, then tell them what they can do to help and make information readily available. They want to do things like this.

“If it makes financial and environmental sense to them and it attaches them to their community, it becomes a no-brainer for them to participate.”

The EESD supports other initiatives, too. One example is a Toilets Aren’t Garbage Cans campaign, featuring a sticker that reminds people to put only human waste and toilet paper into toilets. The stickers get distributed to businesses, residents, hospitals and other places.

“We probably have more than 25,000 stickers throughout the city,” Orr says.

Another outreach program centers on evidence-based projects and experiments that Orr does with students at local schools. The projects show students that there’s a connection between their toilet-flushing behaviors and the environment.

Orr credits “a really great team” within the division, along with collaboration with other municipal entities like the solid-waste and fire departments, for coming up with the innovative ideas.

“Whatever you do, it has to be engaging,” he advises. “Just printing up some pamphlets doesn’t seem to work all that well. You have to find unique ways to get the public’s attention.”

Deep respect

Orr’s environmentalism stems from growing up on a farm outside London, where as a youth he spent countless hours with his black Labrador, Chris, exploring along the banks of the Sydenham River.

“I’ve had this connection with water from a very young age,” he explains. “So as a young man, I wanted to protect this natural resource and my community, and it just so happened that my desire to do this and my love for water turned into a very gratifying career path.

“I feel very fortunate because I truly love my job.”

As a side bonus, the success of the various programs has made Orr a bit of an international figure in the sewer field. He’s made presentations about the division’s initiatives in Japan, Australia, The Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom, and routinely fields phone calls from municipal sewer officials around the globe.

Orr never imagined he’d become a global figure in the municipal sewer industry.

“All I wanted to do was serve my community. And I’m profoundly grateful to have so much fun doing this job while protecting this community for future generations.” 


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