Monday, 4 November 2013

Anti-litter crusaders on patrol at East Coast Park

Volunteers at morning event say litterbugs caught are not defiant and would clear their trash
By Chang Ai-Lien, The Sunday Times, 3 Nov 2013

The spandex-clad duo, fresh off a biking session at East Coast Park, stood at the side of a road puffing on their cigarettes.

One of them casually flicked his spent butt onto the grass, only to be approached by anti-litter crusader Tony Soh.

Caught in the act, the man sheepishly picked up his stub and deposited it in a nearby bin.

Yesterday morning, Mr Soh, 47, chief corporate officer of a serviced apartment group, was among about 20 volunteers at the park to pick up trash and catch offenders in the act. Half of them were armed with warrant cards that allow them to take offenders to task.

But three hours later, those warrant cards had not left any pockets: Nobody had had to whip out his card to deal with a defiant litterbug who refused to pick up his trash.

In fact, most picnicking families, joggers and dog-walkers at the crowded park cleared up and binned their rubbish.

Among offenders, the butt-flicker's reaction is typical, said volunteers interviewed, and only one of them has actually used his card since the National Environment Agency began issuing them earlier this year.

That honour goes to Alexandra Health group chief Liak Teng Lit, who helms the latest effort to keep Singapore clean.

Although he has warned more than 30 people for littering over the last few months, he took down the particulars of only one man he caught smoking in a non-smoking zone and throwing his butt there. The information went to the authorities and the man was fined for littering.

"He gave me his identity card and didn't make a fuss," said Mr Liak.

"On another occasion, there was a man who screamed at me in Hokkkien, saying he'd just been released from prison after 10 years and wouldn't mind going in for another 10. But even he calmed down eventually and picked his tissue paper up.

"On the whole though, once you approach them, they respond quickly and apologetically."

This is particularly so when litterbugs are reminded that they are lucky to get away with a warning rather than a fine, said volunteers.

Under the law, litterbugs face a composition fine of up to $300.

Recalcitrants can be fined up to $1,000 for the first conviction and up to $5,000 for repeat convictions. They can also be ordered to pick up litter in public for up to 12 hours.

Project specialist Quek Ngor Koon, 65, said: "I keep the warrant card in my wallet at all times, but when I've reminded people to pick up something they've discarded, they've always done so, maybe because they wouldn't want to be rude to an older woman."

A total of 104 volunteers from five groups involved in environmental sustainability have been trained for the scheme since it started early this year.

Most of the time, these volunteers keep their eyes peeled to catch offenders "opportunistically" as they go about their daily routines.

Yesterday was the first time the team got together for a concerted effort. Said Mr Liak: "The impact could be felt today as we were a very visible group and when you see people picking up litter in front of you, you too will dispose of it in the bin."

Volunteer Arthur Ang, 54, an executive in an oil trading firm, noticed how one group of campers had pushed all their rubbish beyond their neat abode and left it just beyond its boundaries.

"We need to expand that square and help people redefine what they consider their 'home', which they will always keep clean," he said. "It just takes that small switch and that self-awareness."

Yesterday's exercise comes as the Government mulls over giving ordinary Singaporeans the power to fine a litterbug on the spot as part of wide-ranging efforts to encourage people to take ownership of their environment. This is on top of looking into stiffer penalties against litterbugs.

Mr Liak is keen that the process be taken even further.

"Why stop at littering? For senior people with proper training, let's do away with the silo mentality and give them the right to book other offenders such as those who smoke in non-smoking areas and those who park illegally," he said.

Besides, he added, nobody needs a card to take action against littering.

"Anybody can do what we're doing," he said. "Although the warrant card helps you to deal with the defiant minority, for most people, once you talk to them, they will back off and pick up their trash."

One believer is Mr Mohit Varshney, 44, managing director of a trading company. The Indian national, who has been here for three years, is not eligible for a warrant card, but that has not stopped him from spreading the anti-littering message.

"People often leave their unwanted things at the bus stop, so I will ask them if I can bin it for them. I find that it works better when I remind people gently and in a kinder way," he said.

"And even on the rare times when they ignore me, I'll pick it up myself. Maybe if they don't bin it today, they may reflect on what happened and do it tomorrow."


This warrant card gives its holder the authority to ask litterbugs to pick up and bin their rubbish, and if offenders refuse to do so, the card-carrying volunteer can take down their particulars.

It shows members of the public that these community volunteers mean business even though they are dressed in plain clothes.

The information gathered is sent to the National Environment Agency, which investigates the cases before prosecuting offenders for littering.

Just like NEA officers, volunteers are protected under the Environmental Public Health Act when they carry out their duties. So, offenders who refuse to comply can be charged with obstruction of duties.

By Chang Ai-Lien, The Sunday Times, 3 Nov 2013

From soft-spoken aunties and cat-lovers to company bigwigs, the 104 volunteers share one passion - keeping Singapore clean and stopping litterbugs in their tracks.

They keep their eyes peeled for people who discard trash indiscriminately, and are quick to tell them to do the right thing and bin it.

Among them is cleaning service provider Sharon Kee, 48.

"People think cleaning is easy - it's not easy," said Mrs Kee. "So I wanted to educate people on this. Besides, given my profession, I've got to set a good example."

Her littering pet peeve: tiny bits of litter like the circular tabs from parking coupons and cigarette butts. "Big debris is easy to pick up, it's the small things that are the worst," she said.

Community volunteers agree that when it comes to littering, it is the small stuff that adds up.

Litterbugs usually toss items like cigarette butts and packets, disposable cups, plastic bags and tissue paper.

For retired nurse Rosalind Ng, 70, it was seeing a well-dressed woman blithely discard a plastic bag in a park that steeled her resolve to become an anti-littering proponent.

"She just dropped it on the flower bed, and the fact that she was dressed so nicely somehow made it worse," she said.

The volunteers, who hold warrant cards that authorise them to take litterbugs to task, have gone through the same training course as National Environment Agency enforcement officers, said the NEA.

A total of 104 people from non-governmental organisations involved in environmental sustainability efforts have gone through training, and 83 have been issued with authority cards so far, said an NEA spokesman.

The 57 men and 47 women are from the Public Hygiene Council, Waterways Watch Society, Singapore Kindness Movement, Singapore Environment Council and Cat Welfare Society.

Volunteers should sway, not book, litterbugs
Editorial, The Straits Times, 7 Nov 2013

CITIES everywhere recursively run through a litany of means to tackle the litter scourge. More laws and enforcement officers. Stiffer fines and community sentences. Social campaigns and educational efforts. When back at square one, there's always another list to go through as the authorities ponder why people litter. Reasons often cited: Cleaners will clear the mess, not enough or poorly placed bins, no big harm is done, a throwaway consumer culture is to blame, the place is already dirty, others are doing it too, and so on, ad nauseam.

A more pertinent question would be why the social DNA of some people, like the Japanese, prevents them from "littering with notable intent", in American civic jargon. Japan's cities are clean because people pick up not only after themselves but also after strangers. Japanese sports fans are known to clear their trash even when travelling abroad in hordes to attend major events. The "pack-it-in and pack-it-out" culture of the Japanese makes the enjoyment of products incomplete until unwanted residue is duly dispatched in bins or recycling containers.

Probe the Japanese mentality and it would likely all boil down to common courtesy. What Singapore wouldn't give for such social graciousness to be firmly entrenched here. It will take more time and will not happen in his lifetime, Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously observed some years ago. This should challenge more civic groups to redouble efforts to spread the word that the best solution to this intractable problem is people.

Hence, a volunteer corps is arguably the most significant part of the broad array of measures adopted by the nation to fight littering. This volunteer pool is to be enlarged to pound the anti-litter beat, expanding the reach of National Environment Agency officers. But should the volunteers be allowed to carry warrant cards and issue fines to offenders on the spot? The latter would be going too far.

The scheme should not pit citizens against one another. This may happen if volunteers are somewhat overzealous and less than tactful. When money has to be handed over, one can expect offenders to raise questions and perhaps turn nasty as well - even government enforcement officers have been abused occasionally.

Given the broad mix of people here, volunteers have their work cut out for them in helping to change anti-social habits. Good-natured persuasion by example is more useful than just issuing tickets - in comparison "an almost trivial exercise", as described by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan. If more champion this cause, the better is its chance of success. Just as litter begets litter, caring for the environment can be contagious too.

Have more NEA enforcement officers, not volunteers

I AM surprised that after 45 years of Keep Singapore Clean campaigns, we still need to increase our efforts to catch litterbugs ("Volunteer corps with power to fine litterbugs being considered"; Oct 28).

What prompted the National Environment Agency (NEA) to consider recruiting volunteers to catch litterbugs?

It is the agency's duty to enforce the law to keep the city clean. It should not enlist volunteers to nab and issue fines to offenders as this will breed unnecessary animosity among ordinary folk.

To improve the situation, the NEA needs to engage a sufficient number of full-fledged enforcement officers. It must also study why people litter and the profiles of those who do.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi
ST Forum, 6 Nov 2013

Why anti-litter volunteer scheme is needed: NEA

WE THANK Mr Paul Chan Poh Hoi for his letter ("Have more NEA enforcement officers, not volunteers"; Nov 6).

In the Sociological Study on Littering conducted by the National Environment Agency (NEA), 36 per cent of respondents said they would litter out of convenience or when no one was around.

This affirms the need for continued enforcement action against littering, and to drive home the message that such behaviour is not tolerated.

The NEA has stepped up its enforcement against littering, and increased the number of enforcement hours by about 50 per cent since May, resulting in an increase in the number of tickets issued.

Our officers are also conducting more targeted enforcement blitzes at littering hot spots.

Beyond enforcement, we also need to foster the social norm of not littering, and not just when there are others watching. Thus, the community volunteer scheme is an effort to get the community to own and shape such norms, through empowering more people to speak up against such bad behaviour, as NEA enforcement officers cannot be omnipresent to catch all litterbugs in action.

Under the community volunteer programme, volunteers will, in the first instance, encourage litterbugs to take ownership of their litter. Only when the offender refuses to cooperate will the volunteer draw on the authority conferred on him to request the offender's particulars for enforcement purposes.

Our volunteers have given feedback that many people are receptive to their advice not to litter.

We thank the many volunteers and individuals who have participated in various community activities to promote a litter-free environment in Singapore.

Tai Ji Choong
Director, Environmental Health Department
National Environment Agency
ST Forum, 20 Nov 2013

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