Kids can play important role in encouraging tray returns

Against a background of persistent exhortations by politicians as well as a plethora of policy initiatives to encourage Singaporeans to return their trays in hawker centres, such as monetary incentives, smart robots and automated tray-return counters, the observation that students have always been doing so in the schools and universities is often overlooked (Celebrate our hawker culture by cleaning up our act first; Sept 4).

In most primary and secondary school canteens, children return their crockery and cutlery to bins placed in front of the food stalls without being prompted to, and, in most institutes of higher learning and universities, students do the same when they return their trays to centralised stations.

And while there are questions about how such behaviours or attitudes shift over time, working to maintain these practices appears most practical.

Thus far, campaigns have been focused on making it easier for Singaporeans to return their trays - having "ample bins and racks for serving trays to be returned to after meals", for instance - and on rewarding or penalising acts, instead of understanding the reluctance of some diners, and the extent to which they can be motivated to do otherwise.

Emphasising the overall design of hawkers centres and foodcourts or that of the specific facilities for crockery and cutlery return is a good start, but at some point the conversation should shift to making sense of what older Singaporeans think about the practice.

Do they really cite job creation for cleaners as the reason for their apprehension?

If not, what are the other explanations or excuses?

And more importantly, why have they deviated from a habit which came more naturally when they were schooling?

Perhaps, beyond the suggestion that parents act as role models so that their child does not grow up to be an uncouth person "with filthy habits and one who expects elderly people to pick up after him", it may make more sense, in the context of the family, for children to keep their parents in check.

That is, for children to remind or to even chide their parents if a mess is left on the table, and not just when items are left unreturned.

Appealing to broader civic-mindedness is noble, though nudges from one's past experiences and from loved ones could be more effective.

Kwan Jin Yao

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Kids can play important role in encouraging tray returns'. Print Edition | Subscribe