Covid-19 not a solution to climate change, clearing one's tray can help fight coronavirus spread: Experts

A photo of a tray return station at One Tampines Hub taken on June 9, 2017.
A photo of a tray return station at One Tampines Hub taken on June 9, 2017.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - What does clearing your tray have to do with fighting the coronavirus? And has the Covid-19 outbreak helped in fighting climate change?

The Straits Times sat down with four experts - Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, Public Hygiene Council chairman Edward D'Silva, the director of the National Environment Agency's (NEA) department of public cleanliness, Mr Tai Ji Choong, and director of the emerging infectious diseases programme at Duke-NUS Wang Linfa - to find out more.

Q: What does tray return have to do with my health?

Professor Wang: Infectious materials are living organisms that thrive on food. The longer you leave contaminants on the table, the higher the chances of someone coming in contact with them.

Q: What is one of the worst hygiene habits people here have?

Mr Masagos: Until recently, even myself, after I eat in a hawker centre, I will put my tissue paper inside (my bowl) and I think that's not littering, it's just keeping it away from the floor and so forth. But I'm beginning to recognise that these are also what I call little biohazards that you leave on the table sometimes, or even in your bowl. 

Eat on a tray so that if the food falls out of your bowl, it falls on the tray, and then when you return the tray, the table is clean for the next person. At the same time, the cleaners do not have to clean up after you.

Q: Is 'I cannot find a bin' a valid excuse for littering?

Mr Tai: Well, just counting the public bins that are owned by NEA, we already have over 11,000 bins - and this doesn't include the town council bins.


The shopping malls have their own bins. The MRT stations have their own bins. So actually Singapore has no shortage of bins. And the bins are actually within very easy reach.

So there are really no reasons for a person to say "I cannot find a bin, so I just drop (my litter)."


Q: What changes are being made to Singapore's hawker centres to encourage cleaner practices?

Mr D'Silva: We realise that when customers finish their food, if you want them to clear their trays, the tray return facility should be as close as possible to them so that they don't have to walk a long way. These are just behavioural patterns. So I think this is something which we can learn and we can improve.

The cleaning operators will have to also upskill themselves, and we need to see how we can help them mechanise to some extent, and at the same time educate and promote awareness among their own cleaners... (Cleaners) can do a much better, efficient job if they are doing things other than just clearing your trays. So I think these are little things that we can tweak in the months ahead.

Q: How do cleaning agents and disinfectants help fight the virus?

Prof Wang: The virus has a lipid membrane outside, and for the virus to remain intact, it needs to maintain the lipid.

Many of the cleaning agents can dissolve this lipid, so that's why it's very important that we wash our hands either with soap or a sanitiser or 70 per cent ethanol. All of these will not only clean the environment in the general sort of sense but, more specifically for Covid-19, you can actually disrupt the virus and then prevent its transmission.

Q: Can Covid-19 help lower global emissions and fight climate change?

Mr Masagos: Even if there is a positive impact on climate change, the cost to lives is huge, and I don't think we should be celebrating this.


We have set the world on this journey of reducing emissions and then getting ready to adapt.

We must do everything we can now in our personal habits to use as little energy as possible, reduce our waste, recycle our waste, put it into the circular economy.

At the same time, we look to new opportunities and new solutions. Fossil fuel versus, say, hydrogen.

All these are very great ideas that we should not dismiss and stop talking about.