SINGAPORE – A system of charging customers a deposit that will be forfeited if they do not return their food trays could be rolled out at up to 25 hawker centres over the coming years, despite mixed reviews over its effectiveness.
It is part of a government push to boost productivity in hawker centres amid tightening manpower constraints, to attract younger Singaporeans to enter the profession, and also to promote more gracious behaviour among food patrons.
An automated tray return system has been implemented at the Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre and Bukit Merah Hawker Centre since last December where stallholders there charge customers 50 cents and $1 per tray taken respectively. When the customer returns the tray, they get their money back.
Such a system could also be implemented in another 23 existing hawker centres managed by the National Environment Agency (NEA) as part of its efforts to make hawker centres more productive. These systems could run in tandem with centralised dishwashing services – another productivity-boosting measure.
Visiting the Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre on Monday (Jan 29) to view the tray return system and the centralised dishwashing facility, Dr Amy Khor, Senior Minister of State for the Environment and Water Resources, said these initiatives will help boost the overall business of hawker centres.
Apart from the tray return system helping to improve the hygiene and cleanliness of the environment, the centralised dishwashing service also “reduces the workload on the hawkers so they can concentrate on food preparation and cooking, which is their core business activity”, she said.
“(It also) ensures that they will continue to have a steady supply of clean cutlery and crockery even during peak hours.”
The two initiatives are part of the recommendations by the Hawker Centre 3.0 Committee which aim to help reduce hawkers’ workload and overcome manpower challenges. The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources accepted the recommendations last March.
Currently there are 114 hawker centres and markets that are managed by the NEA or through NEA-appointed managing agents.
Tray return systems involving a deposit is not new in Singapore, with the Timbre Group having implemented a similar system at its food hall Timbre+ in one-north and at the Yishun Park Hawker Centre.
But hawker centre patrons are divided over the tray return system.
Childcare teacher Chua Kim Choo, 65, said that even though the initiative helps to keep the tables clean, it can be tough for older people with difficulties walking to return their trays after their meal.
“If they do not return the trays, they will lose 50 cents,” she said. “There should be more tray return areas around the hawker centre so it is more convenient for such customers.”
But marketing manager Erica Li, 34, said she does not find it a hassle to have to return her own tray.
“I like the concept because I believe that you should clean up after yourself,” she said.
Past attempts to boost the average tray return rate of about 20 per cent to 30 per cent at local eateries included a reward points scheme that can be exchanged for drinks.
Public Hygiene Council chairman Edward D’Silva said giving disincentives to promote tray return is a stop-gap measure for existing hawker centres.
For new hawker centres, design is paramount, said Mr D’Silva, an architect. This could include ensuring the tray return area is accessible from all seats, and through the use of prominent signages to direct people to tray return areas.
“Charging deposits for trays is not a healthy, long-term solution,” said Mr D’Silva.
Hawkers have to pay for the dishwashing services, depending on the amount of crockery and cutlery they need daily. The Straits Times understands that the charge is three cents per piece of crockery and cutlery.
To encourage hawkers to adopt the service, the NEA will pay for up to 70 per cent of the operating costs for two years.
But some hawkers at the Marsiling Mall Hawker Centre are concerned that the dishwashing service could add to their business costs, though they welcome the convenience.
Mr Ng Yian Beng, 55, owner of a fishball noodle stall, said: “It is more expensive than washing the dishes ourselves, but at least we do not lose our cutlery or get them mixed up with other stalls’.”
To encourage stall-level productivity, hawkers can also apply for the Hawkers’ Productivity Grant, which sees NEA co-funding the purchase of kitchen automation equipment by cooked food stallholders.
Eligible kitchen automation equipment must result in significant man-hours savings in food preparation and/or cooking time, and must be of at least commercial-grade.
Under the grant, each stallholder can claim 80 per cent of the equipment’s unit cost, up to a total of $5,000 within three years.
As of Jan 19, 34 applications for the grant have been approved, amounting to a total of $74,000, said NEA. Some of the equipment purchased include food processors, vegetable cutters, automatic cookers, dough mixers and sugar cane press machines.
Additional reporting by Audrey Tan