SINGAPORE - Mr Sebastien Chua usually walks home with his grocery purchases from the FairPrice supermarket three blocks from his flat in Rivervale Crescent.
But every few months or so, he pushes an extra-large purchase back home in a supermarket trolley, as he was doing on New Year's Eve, when he had bought two 5kg bags of rice and toilet paper, among other things.
The 54-year-old sales associate, who has lived in the area for about 20 years, said he always returns the trolley to Rivervale Mall after using it.
"This trolley doesn't belong to us. We may need to use it occasionally to carry heavy items, but we will also need to do our part and be responsible to return it," he said.
Not every resident thinks the same way, as The Sunday Times spotted nearly a dozen lined up and chained together at the side of the road on Rivervale Crescent that day.
So widespread and perennial is the problem of unreturned trolleys that the Municipal Services Office (MSO) has a "Spot Abandoned Trolleys" feature in its OneService app, which was launched in April 2016 with five supermarket chains - FairPrice, Sheng Siong, Mustafa Centre, Giant and Cold Storage. Furniture chain Ikea came on board in March last year.
The MSO, which is under the Ministry of National Development (MND), told The Sunday Times that it received 6,559 reports of abandoned trolleys last year through the app, which lets citizens engage the authorities on municipal issues. In 2019, 5,429 reports were made, and 6,662 in 2020. An MND spokesman attributed the higher number of reports in 2020 over 2019 to increased downloads of the app.
Lost trolleys are a costly problem for supermarkets. A FairPrice spokesman said: "On average, the costs of repairing, replacing and retrieving unreturned trolleys is about $150,000 a year."
In the first 11 months of last year, FairPrice received about 4,000 reports of unreturned trolleys from the public, compared with some 3,300 in both 2019 and 2020.
Sheng Siong and DFI Retail Group, which owns Giant and Cold Storage, both declined to comment beyond saying that they get feedback on unreturned trolleys through phone calls, e-mail and the OneService app.
The industrywide problem is a perennial issue, said the FairPrice spokesman, who noted that public education and a sense of social responsibility are key to addressing it. The group has been working with the Singapore Kindness Movement for more than a decade to raise public awareness and encourage shoppers to be responsible about returning trolleys.
The spokesman also said the chain has tried solutions such as installing proximity auto-locking systems and collecting identity cards in exchange for trolley usage, but some errant customers find ways to bypass these measures, which are costly to implement, and affect the majority of shoppers, who are responsible about returning trolleys.
"We will continue to look at ways to enhance our efforts to reduce trolley abandonment," she said.
At Block 663B, Jurong West Street 65, The Sunday Times found four FairPrice trolleys chained together and abandoned at the rubbish chute area on the ground floor on Monday.
Baker L.K. Goh, 60, who has lived in the estate for 21 years, said he has long seen residents leaving supermarket trolleys around the place, but the situation started getting worse about three years ago.
He said in Mandarin: "The residents are doing it only for their own convenience because they know that the staff from FairPrice will come to collect it."
FairPrice employees do trolley retrieval runs around the Jurong West neighbourhood every day at 9am and 2.30pm.
Retail assistant Chee Kin Ken said each trip takes about two hours.
The 64-year-old, who has worked at the supermarket for 12 years, said in Mandarin: "On some days, we may not find many trolleys around the area, but the next day, we may find a snaking line of them appearing."
He said some residents and cleaners will let them know where they have spotted trolleys. On Friday afternoon, as The Sunday Times accompanied them, a team of three collected some 14 trolleys at Blocks 662 and 663 of Jurong West Street 65.
Mr Chee said more trolleys are discarded during festive seasons such as Chinese New Year and Christmas. He said they once collected 150 trolleys in one run.
The trolleys are sometimes littered with rubbish, which they have to clear out. Inclement weather also has an impact on the work.
He said: "We will not go out when it rains. If it rains when we are outside and we are near Jurong Point, we will try to push the trolleys back in the rain. If it is raining heavily and we are not nearby, then we will leave the trolleys and go back for them another time. Sometimes we might even need to catch a bus back."
He said it was strenuous and challenging to push a row of trolleys along the pavements, where there are pedestrians, back to the mall.
Mr Chee said: "The trolleys can be used only within Jurong Point. We hope that customers will return it to the trolley points after use."