Tuesday 21 May 2013

17 major food court and fast food operators get on board tray-return drive

Foodcourts and fast-food joints such as Kopitiam and KFC join campaign
By Melissa Pang, The Straits Times, 20 May 2013

DINERS can soon expect to see more tray-return stations at most of Singapore's foodcourts, after more than 500 food outlets joined islandwide efforts to encourage people to return their trays.

The National Environment Agency yesterday announced that it has partnered 17 major foodcourt and fast-food operators for the first time in its campaign to inculcate social graciousness among diners.

The 17, which committed to implementing tray-return systems in all their outlets, include foodcourt operators Kopitiam, Food Junction and Koufu, as well as fast-food chains McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Subway.

Altogether, they represent some 70 per cent of foodcourts and 90 per cent of fast-food outlets in Singapore.

A "tray-return partner" decal pasted at the storefront of these outlets will identify them as being part of the campaign, and encourage patrons to return their trays.

A working group has also been formed to come up with more ideas, with more details expected in a few months' time.

Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu, who was the guest of honour at yesterday's event at HDB Hub Mall in Toa Payoh, said these popular eateries present an opportunity to influence Singaporeans' behaviour.

The tray-return initiative, which was piloted at nine hawker centres last year, has had encouraging results so far.

Up to seven in 10 diners have been returning their trays since last November. Ms Fu said the agency is also looking into why the rest do not.

"Most importantly also is to get feedback from patrons, cleaners and stallholders, on how we can improve the processes, because obviously, we are trying to put in some infrastructure to deal with this new initiative," she added. "We're bound to need some time for improvements."

From July, the tray-return movement will be expanded to the rest of the 100-plus hawker centres in Singapore.

But while the scale of the latest campaign is unprecedented, this is not the first time people are being asked to clear their own trays. There were similar efforts - though on a smaller scale - in 2003, 2008 and 2010.

Kopitiam's director of operations Yip Keng Soon said previous attempts met with poor response, with only about one in 10 customers returning trays. With plans to build tray-return stations at more eateries, he hopes the latest campaign will be different.

At Koufu's Gourmet Paradise foodcourt in Toa Payoh, tray-return stations that were put in place a few days ago have led to more patrons returning trays. It has eased the workload of cleaners, especially during lunchtime.

This latest campaign also comes amid a shortage of cleaners in the industry. "As the tables get cleared faster, customers also get more clean tables," said cleaning supervisor Xie Shi Xia.

The foodcourt also has signs at every table, reminding customers to clear their own trays. Civil servant Yvonne Lim, 28, said more of such reminders would be useful.

"To be very frank, I don't return my own trays unless I see a sign and am reminded of it. I used to do it in school out of habit, and because there were signs everywhere," she said.

At McDonald's, where the tray-return practice has always been encouraged, staff now thank customers who do so, said managing director Phyllis Cheung.

She said: "Positive reinforcement - it's like parenting. If customers get recognition, they will be encouraged and will continue to do that."

Tray returns will pay returns
By Fiona Chan, The Sunday Times, 26 May 2013

I popped back to Singapore for a few days last month to run some errands and satisfy a desperate craving for chai tow kway (fried carrot cake).

A friend helpfully drove me to Toa Payoh. "This hawker centre serves the pancake type, you got try before? Famous one! Very tasty."

True enough, it was delicious. Savouring both the dish and the familiar rowdiness of the lunchtime crowd, I thought happily about how nice it was to be home again.

But even as I slid back into old habits, I realised I had picked up some new ones. When we stood to leave after eating, I reached out to clear my tray from the table, a custom as intrinsic to any Japanese eatery as paying in yen.

My friend gave me a strange look. "Oh," I said. "I forgot, people don't return their trays in Singapore."

It was harder than I expected to walk away and leave the table dirty, but there was no tray return area anyway.

I promptly forgot about the incident until last week, when it was reported that only 60 to 70 per cent of Singaporeans return their trays, despite new tray return racks and reminder signs.

The subject was far from scintillating. It featured government efforts to encourage tray returns, so it was full of words like "initiative" and "partnership", and unnecessary acronyms such as "Quick Service Restaurants, or QSRs".

The icing on the cake was a "working group", which had been formed to "plan and coordinate implementation of the tray return rollout schedule over the next one to two years".

After I woke up from the coma induced by that particular sentence, I started wondering why Singaporeans can't seem to do such a simple thing as return their trays.

I mean, Singaporeans are capable of so much. For the sake of food alone, they will spend an hour navigating the traffic jams across the island, another hour lining up for the food, and a third hour eating and complaining about how the food is no longer as good/cheap/fast as before.

And then they will get up and leave, refusing to spare the two minutes needed to pick up their tray and place it at the tray return counter.

If you ask them about this behaviour, they will invoke the three great Singaporean obsessions: jobs, money and what other people are doing.

Some will say: "If I clear this tray, the cleaning aunty will lose her job, then how?"

Others add: "This hawker centre/fast food joint already making so much money, why should I provide free labour?"

Finally, someone will say: "No one else is doing it what, how come I have to do?"

On the surface, these arguments may seem to make sense. But a closer look will show they are all fallacious.

First, lightening the cleaning aunty's workload will not make her lose her job. People using this justification should ask themselves: Why not go a step further and guarantee her job by randomly throwing trash around the table?

In fact, the cleaning aunty, who is likely near if not past retirement, really does not want to bend down to pick up your heavy tray, full of bowls and plates and slippery chopsticks and used tissue paper.

She would much rather spend her time doing her other tasks: wiping down the tables and sorting and cleaning the crockery and cutlery.

If, after eating, people load up their trays and put them in one place, that will not just make her job easier but probably extend her life as well. The cost to each consumer: literally two minutes, and that's only if you walk very slowly.

The second argument is a sad reflection on the sense of entitlement of Singaporeans, who believe the $3 they pay for their fishball noodles already includes the cost of someone else clearing the tray. If they have to do so themselves, well, they want a discount.

But these people don't think about the mechanism of maximising their dollar. It's not the "rich" hawker that your "free labour" is helping; it's the cleaner who is paid a pittance to pick up the fish bones you spit on the table.

The solution to this problem, unlike what the Government appears to think, does not involve getting people to design a new tray return icon.

It actually lies in the third argument: peer pressure.

In Japan, if someone leaves without returning his tray, the other customers will cast scandalised looks at him.

"He didn't return his tray!" they will say, as horrified as one can politely be in public. "We must exclude him from society and not invite his family to our origami party."

While I am loathe to ask even more of the 60 to 70 per cent of Singaporeans who already return their trays, I believe this is what they must do: not just lead by example, but provide an active nudge.

In short, use the MRT trick: When someone doesn't give up his seat or return his tray, give him dirty looks until he is shamed into doing the right thing.

All this may seem a lot of fuss over something very small. But, as a society, if we can't even get the small gestures right, we'll never be able to tackle the real problems.

Such as, for instance, how to export chai tow kway to Japan so I can eat it again.

* Tray return points at all hawker centres in 2 years
By Feng Zengkun, The Sunday Times, 28 Jul 2013

All 104 hawker centres in Singapore will have tray return points and racks in the next two years, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) yesterday.

For a start, 34 centres will have the facilities within the next eight months.

The announcement follows the end of a pilot tray return programme at nine food centres that started in November last year.

Launching the new initiative at Jurong's Yuhua Market and Hawker Centre, Second Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Grace Fu said it would make Singapore a more gracious society.

"We like our eating places to be clean, pleasant and tidy, and cleaning up after ourselves is part of consideration for others," she said.

"I hope this practice becomes second nature to Singaporeans."

Ms Fu said the roll-out will take two years because the tray return points have to be customised to each centre, and some infrastructure changes may be needed.

She added that 11 more food outlets and chains have joined the tray return initiative, bringing the total to 28. These include all fast food restaurants, food courts like Kopitiam and other chains like Toast Box.

The NEA also unveiled a new icon to identify eateries with tray return points that it modified from a winning entry chosen from more than 200 entered in a contest.

Sales assistant Tan Yiqin, 32, hopes the tray return points will be more centrally located. "During lunchtime the hawker centres can get very crowded, so if everyone returns their trays people can also get a clean table sooner."


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