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Commentary: Why is it so hard for us to return our trays at the hawker centre?

It is time to get serious about this simple civic act and it shouldn’t be just because someone tells us to do it, says June Yong.

Commentary: Why is it so hard for us to return our trays at the hawker centre?

Trays at Jurong West Hawker Centre.

SINGAPORE: Visit a hawker centre today and you will likely find that it is business-as-usual, except that people are adhering to safe distancing measures and many food stalls bear the “SG Clean” quality mark.

However, there is one thing that should cease to be business-as-usual: The habit of not clearing our trays after we finish our meals.

Despite the Return-Your-Tray initiative that was rolled out in 2013 and updated again this year, it is common to see majority of diners leaving their trays behind after meals – along with used tissues too.

This was a point brought up by Grace Fu, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment (MSE) in parliament on Oct 5. 

In her remarks on amendments to the Environmental Public Health bill, she said: “We are overly reliant on efficient cleaning services.’’ 

She cited a Singapore Management University (SMU) survey where 1 in 3 respondents felt it was the cleaner’s job to return trays.

A dirty table at a hawker centre in Singapore.

It is clear that the government’s various interventions – which range from offering incentives to more stick-like measures such as the one-dollar-deposit system – have not moved the needle in this aspect of our hawker culture.

Why is it so hard for us to return our trays? Do we really need legislation and fines to mobilise collective action?


Perhaps one obstacle to ingraining the tray-return habit in Singaporeans is consistency, or the lack thereof.

Some hawker centres such as Adam Road Food Centre use visual and audio reminders exhorting consumers to clear their own trays.

Other newer food centres such as the one in Our Tampines Hub have a central tray return system that gives diners reward points if they return their trays.

As a result, The National Environment Agency figures show that more than half of the diners in such establishments fall in line. This tells us that systems actually play a part in shaping culture.

Diners at the hawker centre at Our Tampines Hub. (File photo: Fann Sim)

This stands in contrast with the smaller, privately-run food centres, where the cleaner sometimes clears your tray even before you think of doing it yourself.

Or even if the thought did cross your mind, you had to look around to locate the tray return station.

Singapore spends some S$120 million on cleaning public areas each year. If we could reduce litter and consequently our cleaner labour cost, some of that money could be pumped into other essential areas like healthcare and transport, or even improving the salaries or investing in training of cleaners. 

READ: Returning trays at hawker centres does not deprive cleaners of jobs: Amy Khor

While such an efficiently “cleaned nation” shores up our reputation as a clean and green city, it leaves little room for ordinary Singaporeans to step up to the plate.

It also contributes to a “this-is-not-my-problem” mentality, as many uphold the notion that returning trays, just like picking litter, is the cleaner’s job, not ours.


First-time travellers to Japan often marvel at the fact that it is such a clean and orderly country, despite the obvious lack of trash bins in public areas.

One can only attribute this to the high levels of civic-mindedness in Japanese society and general importance placed on hygiene. 

They are efficient but they take on a greater sense of personal responsibility for the spaces they live in and use.

School children there are taught from the get-go to clean up their classrooms, lunch tables, and even toilets in school. Even children as young as four can be seen serving lunch to their peers and cleaning tables after. 

LISTEN: Beyond COVID-19, how do we take Singapore's public hygiene standards to the next level?

This service culture continues to be propagated at home, as many parents too expect their children to clean up after themselves.

In Singapore, we are quite privileged in this regard. Hundreds of thousands of homes have a domestic helper who clears the dirty dishes, mops the floor and does all the household chores.

This lack of habit in picking up after ourselves can lead to a lack of strong sense of service, especially in our children.

When my children were younger, we too had hired help at home. In those few years, despite having her around, we tried to inculcate in our kids the responsibility of clearing their plates and placing them in the kitchen sink. 

The results were choppy at best.

It was only after our helper left that they started to chip in more regularly and reliably.  

To be clear, I’m not suggesting we get rid of the army of cleaners we have hired just so that we are forced to pick up the pieces ourselves.

But it does beg the question: If the work is outsourced almost completely, then why would we even need to think about clearing our own trash?

Since COVID-19 hit our shores earlier this year, students across the nation have been enlisted in the work of wiping down their desks and dining tables after recess. Sanitizing sprays and paper towels are now a common sight in most canteens.

What other kinds of skills and values should an education encompass? (Photo: Linette Lim) Primary 1 students at Xingnan Primary School taking part in the Little Home Helper programme. (Photo: Linette Lim)

The concept is simple: If you dirtied it, you clean it.

I have not heard a whisper of complaint from my children about this new normal. Perhaps it is because they know that their individual action breeds a collective sense of safety and well-being.

They don’t need to be bribed with a carrot or warned with a stick. I would go so far as to say they might actually feel good about contributing as it feeds into their sense of self and identity; that they are being helpful and responsible, and are capable of acting for the greater good.


A mentality of chipping in can meet with resistance at the start; old habits are after all hard to change. But once cultivated, the effects can be wide-reaching.

It is the sense of taking ownership and doing the right thing without anyone looking at you or nagging you.

This was how Clean Up Australia began in 1990. Avid sailor Ian Kiernan was shocked by the amount of rubbish he encountered in the oceans. He decided to mobilise friends and the local community to clean up their own backyard.

Over the past three decades, over 18 million Australians have volunteered their time in Clean Up Australia activities and cleared 380,000 utility trucks worth of rubbish. It is today the largest community-based environmental event in Australia.

How did such a ground-up movement become so successful? Obviously it required buy-in from the people; they had to believe in the vision that he espoused – of a cleaner and more livable country for all.

Volunteers from Temasek Polytechnic and Mediacorp collecting trash at the East Coast Park beach. (Photo: Mediacorp)

But there is another factor. The country does not have access to low-wage labour and simply cannot afford to hire the huge number of cleaners needed to keep its beaches, forests, and streets clean.

On a smaller scale, I witnessed a similar event one sunny Saturday afternoon, when my children, led by their godmother, cleared two full bags of trash at East Coast Park.

READ: Commentary: That new problem of disposable masks ending up as trash on pavements and beaches

They were hot and sweaty by the end of it, but you could pick up their feelings of satisfaction at having contributed in a small way toward caring for our environment.

At a time when delivery culture has taken flight and we are producing more plastic and cardboard waste than ever before, it is time we acknowledge that we are part of the nation’s environmental problem.

But thankfully, we can also be part of the solution.

If we’re proud of Singapore’s hawker culture and want to continue taking part in its delicious spoils, then we should make every effort to re-invigorate our tray-return culture.

For the past 50 years, Singapore has relied on a large army of cleaners to gain international recognition as a clean and green city.

For the next 50, in order for us to truly lay claim to that accolade, we should take things into our own hands, and the humble hawker tray is one small item we can begin with. 

June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.

Source: CNA/cr


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