Appearances can deceive. That one idea keeps the movie, cosmetics, and television industries thriving. The typical formula dictates that the pretty person or place is virtuous and good, while the ugly character or setting is duplicitous and evil.
Even when Hollywood seeks to flip the equation, it’s transparent and we have thoughts like “oh, the grimy guy is really the hero and the swanky business man is the villain.” Ironically, the departure from the stereotype actually reinforces it.
Many utility services get burned by the pretty-good/ugly-bad standard. Trash collectors, wastewater treatment plant operators, even groundskeepers do not get the respect they deserve because they work with undesirable materials.
It seems to me that the people who step up to deal with our waste materials and messes should be regarded with more respect, not less. Without treatment plant operators and trash collectors, public health and safety would be compromised and our streets would be filled with litter and muck.
The average citizen throws away a coffee cup and flushes their toilet and never gives another thought to what happens next. While that usually would be the mark of a well-operated system, in this case, it creates a barrier to understanding the work that is needed and, often, disgust for the topic — we call it the Yuck Factor.
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point what was unpleasant became obscene. It’s normal to try to avoid unpleasant topics, but to demonize them seems to be a step too far.
Deep down I think people do realize the importance of wastewater treatment even if they do everything possible to avoid the topic. And part of avoiding the topic means that the frontline folks don’t usually get the recognition they deserve.
Instead of “it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it,” it feels as though the saying has become “it’s a dirty job, someone’s got to do it, but let’s never mention this again.”
I’m not sure how to break down that barrier and change the perception of wastewater treatment from foul to wholesome. I am sure, however, that the work is noble, and that every person involved deserves credit for making his or her community a better, safer, and more comfortable place to live.