The hawker centre where not returning your tray really is frowned upon

Staff separating their dishes at the tray return area at the food court in Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, on Jan 30, 2018.

SINGAPORE - Forget to pick up your tray at this hawker centre, and you might find yourself picking up bad vibes from fellow diners.

Such behaviour is frowned upon - literally - at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH), a tactic which has helped its hawker centre increase its tray return rate from 20 per cent in 2014 to the current 75 per cent, all without dangling discounts or implementing tray deposits.

Customers do not just take their trays to the racks after a meal. They must also sort their crockery - plates in one basin, bowls in another, cups, utensils in separate ones. And if the fail to do so they might receive the occasional unwelcome glance.

The hospital's chief operating officer Yen Tan explained to The Straits Times how three factors have helped it to achieve what many eateries are striving to do: "Leadership by example, cues to discourage undesirable behaviour and helping those in need such as the elderly or the immobile.

"For example, when staff sees a patron not returning the tray, he or she will give a subtle frown. We observed that in most instances, patrons will take the cue and return their trays."

Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, agreed, saying that people tend to follow the crowd around them. "If the majority of the hawker centre patrons do not take the initiative to return trays after their meals, the others will not feel compelled to be 'outstanding' and do the right thing by returning trays."

At KTPH, design was also an important factor. Tray return areas are centrally-located and easily accessible. They are also visually prominent, with signs showing patrons where to put the different items.

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Said Ms Tan: "Our intuitive sorting system is also designed to make it easier for patrons to sort their crockery and discard their leftovers in the bins. This helps improve the overall cleanliness of the foodcourt and boosts productivity as manpower can be redeployed to other areas."

When The Straits Times visited the KTPH hawker centre at lunchtime on Tuesday (Jan 30), most people were seen returning trays and sorting crockery. Despite the crowd, there were no lines at the tray return area, which was also clean and odourless.

Associate human resources director Ms Annie Teo, 41, who returned her tray, said: "This is a better scheme to encourage tray return compared to charging deposits for trays, which people may not like."

Despite mixed reviews of tray return systems involving incentives or disincentives, figures show that they do work.

At the hawker centre at Our Tampines Hub, for example, diners earn reward points that can be redeemed for free items, such as drinks, for every tray returned.

There, the tray return rates averages between 60 to 70 per cent, according to a spokesman from Kopitiam, which manages the centre.

Food hall Timbre+ in one-north, run by the Timbre Group, charges patrons a returnable $1 deposit for each tray taken. A spokesman said the system has allowed it to achieve a tray return rate of 97 per cent, compared to national average of 20 per cent.

She added: "The system allows for a faster turnover of tables which also means that customer gets clean tables instead of having to wait for cleaners to clean their tables.

"There are also fewer pests such as birds which tend to nibble on leftovers and it allows for a cleaner and pleasant dining experience."

Singapore Kindness Movement's Dr Wan is confident that Singaporeans will develop a tray return culture, but said these changes do not happen overnight.

"We are approaching the tipping point where we will see a positive shift in Singapore's society. We can use constant yet subtle reminders like posters to educate and remind the public to be considerate and clear the tables for the next diner, especially during peak hours."

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