Opinion: To return or to leave your tray, that is the eternal question

  • On 14 May 2021, the National Environment Agency announced that not returning your trays after eating would be a penalised offence, and that legislation takes effect in September 2021.
  • This new development comes after years of public education campaigns to encourage diners to return their trays.
  • What pushed the Government to take such stark measures to combat poor rates of tray return? Why has tray-return culture in Singapore existed in the minds of policymakers for so long?
(Photo source: Yahoo News Singapore)
(Photo source: Yahoo News Singapore)

“Just leave it there, there are cleaners who will return the trays.”

Have you had someone tell you this? I certainly have.

The issue of tray returning has existed in the Singaporean public conscience for a long time now. On 14 May, the National Environment Agency (NEA) declared that returning trays and clearing table litter will be mandatory for diners, with enforcement actions coming into effect on 31 August. Tray return ambassadors have been deployed at hawker centres and coffee shops with the primary intention of reminding diners to return their trays. Enforcement measures that would begin this year include a written warning for those who fail to return their trays the first time, a S$300 (US$221)  fine to second-time offenders and court fines for subsequent offenders. These came after multiple rounds of education campaigns run by NEA to encourage returning trays, all of which had not yielded the results that had been hoped for.

Naturally, this has resulted in some decrying these new measures as the ‘nanny state’ controlling its citizens. The implementation of new fines would probably also harken back to the now unfunny but still ubiquitous “Singapore is a fine city!” joke. 

A framed picture showing all the many offences that are penalised with a fine in Singapore (Photo source: Ameba)

But what has made tray returning such a contentious issue? Why is it that many still speak about it passionately? What makes this issue so uniquely Singaporean?

Why is tray returning such a huge issue in Singapore?

Unlike most countries, Singapore has many hawker centres and coffee shops, public eateries that largely serve the masses. Thousands of people frequent hawker centres and coffee shops a day, and that means that these places need to be regularly cleaned so that they are safe and hygienic for diners.

These eateries are large and decentralised (i.e. there are multiple stores operating, not just one). In order for cleaning staff to clear the tables off trays and crockery, as well as return them to the correct stalls, they would have to work at a remarkably fast speed, and most probably cannot catch a break.

A typical crowded hawker centre in Singapore. (Photo source: Asian Inspirations)

As a significant proportion of cleaners in Singapore are seniors, the physicality of the work could cause and/or worsen physical ailments. In an interview with The Pride, Madam Chang (not her full name) revealed that her body “is not so strong anymore. My legs hurt because we stand around a lot and have to walk up and down to pick up the trays from the table.” 

In a recent report published by the Public Hygiene Council this year, Singapore also depends a lot on migrant workers to keep places clean. But, with travel restrictions in place due to Covid-19, the number of foreign workers coming into the country has been decreasing. Also, the report finds that the average age of a cleaner in Singapore is 60, which points to the fact that the country depends on older workers, who are perhaps not just physically struggling to keep up with their cleaning tasks, but who are also due to retire soon. If this is the trend going forward, sustaining the workforce in the cleaning industry is going to be an uphill task in the future. 

Additionally, according to this media article in 2018, it is estimated that Singapore spends around S$120m (US$88.2m) per year on cleaning public spaces. This is a lot of money that could instead be diverted into other sectors, like health and education, for instance, if more people shouldered the burden of keeping Singapore clean by, for example, clearing the tables after they have finished eating and returning their trays and crockery. Does this mean that the elderly would be out of jobs? Well, instead of hiring them to carry out physically demanding and menial work, they could instead be trained for other sectors that will continue to keep them active, not just physically, but mentally, as well. 

What are some reasons for returning or not returning your trays?

Students from James Cook University conducted a study that identified three main behavioural reasons for why people choose to return their trays: self-responsibility, consideration for others and social identity.

For people who chose self-responsibility, they stated that since they were the ones eating, they feel that they also have to clean up after their own mess.

Those who chose compassion for others, said that they returned their trays because they are concerned for how tired the cleaners become from clearing everyone’s trays, or that they want to leave their tables clean for the next batch of diners.

And respondents who chose social identity, said their reason was because they want to fit in with others, and fear being ostracised if they do not return their trays. But conversely, this could also mean that people would not return their trays if they see that others around them are not doing so.

The study concluded that self-responsibility is the strongest motivator for returning trays, followed by consideration for others. 

But even with such strong reasons that motivate people to return their trays, some continue not to do so.

Why?

Apparently, many do not know where to return their trays when eating at hawker centres. Sometimes, tray return kiosks are not few and far between, and are not located near where diners are seated. In these cases, people save themselves the hassle and just let cleaners clear their trays, since the logic is that they would know where the kiosks are. 

Adding on to this point, most Singaporeans, young and old, have had the habit of returning their trays cultivated in them at school. Students are required to return their trays to the respective stalls that they bought their food from once they are done eating. They are also required to throw out any leftover food at the disposal bins. But even after being conditioned in school to return their trays and clear their utensils, some do not do that when they are eating in hawker centres. This is possibly because unlike in schools, tray return facilities at hawker centres are not standardised. At schools, you can find tray return spots right outside each stall. But at hawker centres, you might have to search for them.

There is also the fact that the presence of cleaners would deter people from taking the initiative to clear their own trays. Some believe that it is the job of cleaners to clear their trays (after all, that’s why they are employed, right?).

Former NEA Chairman Liak Teng Lit famously said that “Singapore is not a clean city, it’s a cleaned city.” We have always had fines for littering or spitting in public. We have also had numerous educational campaigns on cleanliness. But those measures were not the reason why Singapore has managed to remain clean. There is an “army of cleaners” employed in Singapore, around 59,000 cleaners today. 

Furthermore, many Singaporean families also employ domestic helpers, which would have inculcated a sense of entitlement in many: If I am paying for someone to keep everything clean for me, why should I contribute? Singaporeans have the assurance that someone will always clean up after them, which explains why tray return rates have remained abysmally low, at an average of 35 per cent.

Some even feel that it is not consequential if they choose not to return their trays. Compared to wearing masks during the pandemic, people would say that wearing masks is important to prevent contraction of Covid-19 or spreading the virus. But returning trays (or not returning them) does not have similar consequences. The blasé attitude towards returning trays might explain why the return rates continue to remain low.

However, perhaps most egregiously, some people believe that returning trays would cost cleaners their jobs, hence choosing not to return their trays. While this is a well-intentioned reason for not returning trays, it is also a misplaced concern. Cleaners do far more than just clearing trays. They also have to sweep and mop floors and wipe down tables and clear out disposal bins, just to name a few of their tasks. Introducing tray-return kiosks and legislating that diners return their trays themselves will not render cleaners redundant.

Why did previous campaigns fail?

It is important to note that tray return rates have been very high at Timbre+. Over 95 per cent of diners return their trays at Timbre+. And that is because of their unique tray return system – pay a S$1 deposit for your tray, and if you want that dollar back, you have to return your tray.

The tray return area at Timbre+, a food centre in western Singapore. (Photo source: Tunity Technologies)

But many scholars speculate previous campaigns failed because they confused diners over the real reason for returning trays – is it a ‘transactional act’, or is it something that should be done out of civic consciousness?

In other hawker centres, the absence of monetary incentives like the one at Timbre+ has translated to lower tray-return rates (although some might dispute this by pointing out that correlation is not always causation).

So are there solutions?

How do we move forward from here?

Besides tray-return ambassadors who nudge diners to return their trays, soon we would also have legislation that penalises the failure to return trays coming into effect. 

But there is the question of monitoring and implementation. Will every offender be caught? After all, we have strict laws about other things like littering, but that has not stopped people from littering.

I suggest tackling the misconceptions behind the reasons why people do not return their trays. More needs to be done to convince people that cleaners do not necessarily lose their jobs when we return our trays, or have nothing to do. Other ways might be to educate people on not thinking they are entitled to having a cleaner clear their trays for them, especially at hawker centres, where you are not paying for that level of service, unlike in restaurants.

Removing incentives for returning trays would also be a good first step to encouraging people to think more about the social good that comes from returning trays. That the act is in itself a reward. Especially since we are living in a pandemic, it is important for each of us to understand and appreciate the importance of maintaining strict hygiene, in order to minimise the spread of the virus.

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