Comment: Why do we need a S$300 fine to get us to return our trays?

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As of Jun. 21, it is now mandatory to return our own trays and crockery at hawker centres and other public dining places in Singapore.

Until Aug. 31, there is an advisory period during which no enforcement actions will be taken, but starting Sep. 1, diners who do not heed enforcement officers’ advisories will receive a written warning for the first offence, a S$300 composition fine for the second offence, and possibly court fines for subsequent offences.

How did we get to this point, when the authorities saw the need to impose a fine to get us to clear our own mess?

Tray return is not new in S’pore

The importance of clearing our trays has been a conversation in Singapore for years now, with multiple campaigns to try to encourage people to return their own trays, starting with the Tray Return Initiative rolled out in 2013 to hawker centres around the island.

However, despite different modes of trying to convince people to return their trays — including charging deposits for trays, visual and audio reminders, and deploying SG Clean Ambassadors — they didn’t seem to have worked.

According to a survey published by the National Environment Agency (NEA) in January 2021, 92 per cent of respondents felt patrons should be required to clear their tables at hawker centres and 76 per cent said that they returned their trays and crockery most of the time.

In reality, though, an average rate of only 30 per cent of trays and crockery were returned most of the time.

Photo by Jane Zhang.

It seems like these methods of appealing to thoughtfulness and community mindedness didn’t quite work.

Whatever the reason was for why most of us had difficulty bringing ourselves to clear our own trays in the past, we don’t have much of a choice anymore, unless we want to face the potential of a S$300 fine.

“Everyone else does it too”

Remember when we were kids and our parents warned us about peer pressure? Well, it turns out that peer pressure doesn’t really stop after you finish school.

In fact, when it comes to clearing our trays, it seems like as we’ve gotten older, we’ve been just as conditioned to follow what others do around us as we did when we were younger.

The difference is that when we were still in school, most of us would obediently clear our own trays/crockery in the school canteens (ditto the NSFs).

But when it came to hawker centres, many of us may have found ourselves thinking, “Aiya, everyone else also leaves their trays at their tables. It’s not a big deal.”

You may have felt like there was no point clearing your tray, since the cleaning uncle already needed to come clear the crockery from the table next to yours.

Photo by Jane Zhang.

It’s a fascinating mindset shift to observe, though; for example, in when I was in university, I wouldn’t think twice about clearing my own tray in the canteen.

But as soon as I stepped out of campus and ate at a hawker centre, even if it was just later that same day, that same action of clearing my tray didn’t always come as naturally to me, given that many people around me were also leaving their trays behind.

Peer pressure in action

And it apparently only gets worse when you eat in larger groups; a February 2021 NEA press release stated that other surveys by NEA found that large groups of diners were less likely to return their trays and crockery, and might need reminders from cleaners and volunteers to clear their tables.

I mean, imagine you are at a hawker centre with a group of four other friends (this hypothetical scenario is from pre-Phase Three Heightened Alert times, of course). You finish eating and are getting ready to leave together.

Everyone is talking and chatting as they stand up, and all four of your friends start walking away, leaving their trays on the table.

Even if you had been initially planning to return your tray, you now find yourself in a slightly awkward situation — you can either:

1) Return your own tray and make all of your friends wait for you, or you can remind them to also return theirs, which might feel like you were lecturing them, or

2) Leave your tray there for the cleaners to clear.

Personally, I always try to be mindful about clearing my own tray, but in this situation, I have to admit that often times, it is easier to just brush it off and leave my tray at the table with everyone else’s.

Of course, another option, you could argue, would be that you clear your own tray and hope that your friends follow suit. Which would be the best-case scenario. But as we all know, things don’t always go so smoothly in reality.

“It’s their job”

Perhaps some people have this idea that clearing trays off of hawker centre tables is the job of cleaners — a belief that could be both subconscious and conscious. Subconsciously, even if we are well-meaning, we may not notice how we might be taking the tedious and hard work of our cleaners for granted.

Photo via Flickr / CDN Harv.

Thanks to them, Singapore overall has an extremely clean and well-maintained day-to-day environment. But it’s generally less because we’re all working hard to do our part to keep it clean, and more because other people are doing it for us.

Take the issue of littering for instance, and the plan to stop the public sweeping of open areas and on ground levels of housing estates in Singapore one day a month starting in 2022, in order to show “how much litter there is and what it will be like if there was no one to sweep it all away”

Or how some people tend to leave candy wrappers, soda cups, and popcorn boxes behind in a movie theatre after seeing the cleaning staff enter, because “it’s their job anyway”.

“Paying for the service”?

Some netizens have also previously argued that they “deserved” to have their trays cleared by cleaners in hawker centres because they were “paying for the service”.

This speaks to our ideas of what level of service we feel we are entitled to. In most restaurants, waiters and waitresses take your order, bring your food to you, and clear your plates once you leave.

But in those restaurants, we also pay an extra 10 per cent service charge (on top of the 7 per cent GST that we aren’t normally charged in hawker centres).

Needless to say, we don’t pay the same kind of service charge to hawker centre cleaners. Even if we were to take into account the several hundred dollar table cleaning fee that hawker stalls pay monthly, the impact on individual customers would still be far smaller than paying for service charge at a restaurant.

Consider also the salary differential between restaurant staff and hawker centre cleaners.

According to Indeed, the average restaurant staff in Singapore makes S$2,748 per month.

On the other hand, under the progressive wage model, tabletop cleaners — including hawker centre cleaners — are currently paid a minimum of S$1,339 per month.

47 per cent of respondents in NEA’s survey also believed that us clearing our own trays would put cleaners out of their jobs.

However, as has been reiterated time and time again, this isn’t true. Cleaners have plenty of other work that they need to manage, NEA said — such as wiping down tables, upkeeping the general cleanliness of the dining areas, and clearing crockery and trays from the tray return stations.

Photo by Jane Zhang.

Are we really depriving others from gainful employment if we clean up after ourselves and return our own trays, or are we just trying to justify our behaviour?

In addition, just because someone is being paid to offer a service doesn’t mean that we can’t or shouldn’t exercise personal responsibility and be courteous where we can.

Instead, taking responsibility for just moving our dirty crockery to the designated locations — it’s not like we’re being asked to wash our own bowls — allows us to do our part in making cleaners’ lives slightly easier.

Not enough tray return areas

There may also be some more practical reasons surrounding why we aren’t so great at returning our trays.

Depending on the hawker centre, tray return racks can be hard to find. Some are less visibly demarcated than others, and the nearest one may be not be close to where you’re sitting.

In addition, the tray clearance areas aren’t always the most organised. Sometimes, it can be hard to find a place to put your if others have stacked their trays quite messily, or if it is overcrowded.

An NEA study found that members of the public are more likely to clear their tables if the tray return infrastructure is “conveniently and prominently located”.

NEA acknowledges this, however, and have said that they will be adding more tray return stations in time to come.

It shouldn’t take such a harsh measure

We’re a fine-heavy country — one might argue that our sense of social responsibility could be heavily driven by a fear of personal consequence. In this case, our decision to clear our own trays may stem more from a desire to not face a fine, and less from a desire to play our part in keeping hawker centres clean and being considerate towards our frontline cleaners.

But, let’s be honest, it shouldn’t take such a harsh measure to get us to clear our own trays in hawker centres.

It’s not just hawker centres — the same applies to other settings, like in movie theatres or fast food restaurants, where we are likely taking certain norms for granted.

The next time you look over your shoulder to see if anyone is watching before sneakily leaving your tray behind, or if you are waiting until Sep. 1 to start cleaning your tray (since that’s when fines kick in), maybe ask yourself: why?

Top photos by Jane Zhang.