Thursday 12 February 2015

Litter problem, big headache

Rubbish woes persist, but experts say 'clean city' image can be reclaimed
By Feng Zengkun, Environment Correspondent, The Straits Times, 10 Feb 2015

AN IN-DEPTH study to figure out the cause of littering, getting young students to try being cleaners for a day and heavier penalties are among the suggestions made to stop Singapore from becoming a "garbage city".

Academics, civil society members and Singapore residents whom The Straits Times spoke to also have their own take on why the problem persists and what needs to be done to solve it.

Aside from the often-cited reasons such as complacency fostered by an army of cleaners, a "don't care" attitude and growing up pampered, some suggest that different cultural attitudes among some of Singapore's new citizens and foreign workers, and a reluctance to truly shame culprits, could also be behind the country's litter woes.

Last year, the National Environment Agency (NEA) issued about 19,000 tickets for littering -almost double the number in 2013. Thirty-one per cent of these tickets were issued to non-residents.

There were also 688 instances of Corrective Work Orders imposed by the courts, more than double the figure of 261 in 2013, the NEA said in a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page yesterday.

It said it takes a "strict line against all littering offenders, regardless of nationality".

In 2006, The Sunday Times highlighted the problem with a news report headlined, "WARNING - We are becoming a GARBAGE CITY".

About a decade later, the country's trashy ways are back in the spotlight, following Facebook posts from three politicians, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. They had commented on the appalling amount of rubbish left behind by about 13,000 concertgoers at the Laneway Festival at Gardens by the Bay.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong wrote that Singapore is likely to become a "garbage city", if not for the foreign workers who pick up after its people.

"Cleanliness is a character thing. It shows who you really are," he wrote.

On his Facebook, Mr Lee urged people to do the right thing, and said "we need to progress from being a cleaned city to a truly clean city".

Even though stepped-up enforcement efforts could be a contributing factor to last year's 19,000 littering tickets, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan expressed disappointment at the numbers.

Despite what seems to be a perennial and unsolvable problem, many experts believe Singapore can still reclaim its sterling reputation as a clean city.

What will be key to getting this done is for all Singapore residents to do their part, they said.

As the NEA said in its letter: "While enforcement is important, to tackle the littering problem effectively, a new social norm is needed where society frowns upon littering as a socially unacceptable act, and where members of the public proactively remind litterbugs to dispose of their litter properly."

Why is littering still a problem?
By Samantha Boh, The Straits Times, 10 Feb 2015

COMPLACENCY is the likely reason for Singapore's litter woes. Experts say that when people know there will be an army of cleaners to pick up after them, they become too lazy to do the right thing.

Singapore residents and Members of Parliament offer reasons why people do not clean up after themselves:

Coddled by cleaners

With cleaners out every day to sweep up trash, many people have developed the mindset that there is always someone, somewhere, to pick up after them.

Mr Lee Yong Se, 32, who works in the social sector, said that in countries like Japan, citizens are forced to clean up after themselves owing to a lack of cleaning staff. "Here, the expectations are different. People expect to find other people to clean up after them."

As of last September, there were 52,000 cleaners here, of which 38,000 - or about two in three - were Singaporeans or permanent residents, said the National Environment Agency (NEA).

Different cultural attitudes

New citizens and foreign workers may come from countries where keeping public spaces clean is not the norm.

About 19,000 tickets for littering were issued by the NEA last year, of which 31 per cent were given to non-residents.

"Some may not be attuned to our spirit of not littering, so you need to educate (them)," said Nee Soon GRC MP Lee Bee Wah, whose constituency holds a No Cleaners Day to get residents to pick up trash.

"The majority of us don't litter... it's just that we have these new social dynamics, so we need to keep pushing hard."

Mr Lawrence Loh, 65, a retired executive vice-president of marketing, agreed. "Some of them are from countries where there is no clampdown on littering, and they have the use-and-throw mentality," he said.

Because they can

In an NEA study done from 2009 to 2010, four out of 10 people in Singapore said they would litter out of convenience or if they knew they could get away with it.

"People litter because they don't care, and they don't care because they don't get caught," said bank analyst Jason Ng, 24.

National University of Singapore sociologist Paulin Straughan said there are those who litter to test their boundaries.

"These are the ones who would likely not break the rules if there were law enforcement officers right in front of them," she said.

Associate Professor Straughan, who led the NEA study, added that a very small minority is made up of people who are anti-establishment, very much like those of deviant sub-cultures.

"They find they cannot identify with the main group, the norms, and so they set their own rules," she said.

'That's not littering'

Everyone knows flicking a cigarette butt onto the floor or hurling a used nappy out of the window is littering.

But some Singaporeans have found their own way to justify their anti-social actions.

"If the litter bin is full and if you put trash around it, it is littering, but people will say no, (it is not)," said Prof Straughan.

The NEA study also found that about two in 10 people did not think they were littering if their serviettes blew away in the wind. Three out of 10 thought leaving rubbish on a park table after a barbecue was also not littering.

Too lenient now

"We have become reluctant to do the bad thing," said Mr Liak Teng Lit, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, referring to enforcement, including fines and Corrective Work Orders (CWOs), and speaking up when one sees others littering.

Enforcement was more thorough in the 1970s to early 1990s, said Mr Liak, when photos of people queueing up to pay their littering fines were published.

When CWOs were introduced in 1992, offenders made to clean public areas did so under the glare of the media. Photos of them carrying out CWOs were splashed in the newspapers.

"Over the years, we have become more forgiving, with more emphasis now placed on education," said Mr Liak.

Current measures
By Carolyn Khew, The Straits Times, 10 Feb 2015

FROM slapping higher fines on litterbugs to mobilising volunteers to help deter them, Singapore has a range of measures in place in its efforts to keep the country clean.


The National Environment Agency (NEA) issued about 19,000 tickets for littering last year, which is almost double the number in 2013. Thirty-one per cent of these tickets were issued to non-residents.

On April 1 last year, the Environmental Public Health Act was amended to deter those who continue to act irresponsibly.

Under the revised Act, the maximum fine for littering offenders has been doubled to $2,000 for a first conviction. Those who persist can be fined $4,000 for their second conviction, and $10,000 for their third and subsequent convictions.

The courts may also impose Corrective Work Orders (CWOs) requiring offenders to clean public areas for up to 12 hours.

Last year, the courts issued 688 Corrective Work Orders (CWOs), more than double the 261 in 2013.

CWO was introduced in November 1992 to shame litterbugs. The first 10 litterbugs to carry out CWOs were made to clean up part of the East Coast beach on Feb 21, 1993, in front of the media.

It worked, with the authorities then saying the number of littering offences had dipped.

Earlier this month, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan said the NEA is committed to stepping up enforcement of littering rules.

People power

Since the community volunteer scheme was launched in 2013, 259 volunteers from civic groups such as the Singapore Environment Council and the Cat Welfare Society have joined the volunteer corps.

The volunteers successfully engaged 830 litterbugs, persuading them to bin their trash.

Ten cases of enforcement action were taken.

These volunteers can take down the particulars of litterbugs and give the details to the authorities if they refuse to pick up and bin their trash even after being asked to do so.

The Government is considering giving these community volunteers the power to fine litterbugs.

No Cleaners Day

In Nee Soon South, for example, cleaners are given a day off on Labour Day every May 1 - also its annual No Cleaners Day - while residents step in to clean up their estate.

Last year, 500 people, including students and representatives of the area's merchant associations, combed 164 blocks of flats and picked up 500kg of litter.

Bright Spots

First launched in 2012 by the Keep Singapore Clean Movement, which is led by the Public Hygiene Council, the ground-up initiative encourages people and companies to adopt a community area to help keep it clean and litter-free.

At Punggol View Primary, pupils start off cleaning their classrooms, the school's garden and toilets before they are tasked to clean up the public park and beach area in Punggol.

There are more than 300 of such areas and the council hopes to have 500 "Bright Spots" by the end of this year.

Public education for non-residents

The NEA works with various groups to foster the right values in keeping the environment clean, as well as to encourage a ground-up movement that translates these values into action.

For the non-resident population, the NEA conducts regular roadshows at foreign workers' dormitories to raise greater awareness of social norms, such as not littering.

The agency also engages foreign workers through educational materials in their native languages. The litter-free messages are reinforced through briefings conducted by the workers' supervisors.

What more can be done?
By Audrey Tan, The Straits Times, 10 Feb 2015

HEFTY fines, Corrective Work Orders (CWOs) to shame litterbugs, as well as many years of educational campaigns... yet, Singapore is still plagued by rubbish woes.

What more can be done to banish the problem to the bins?

Make litterbugs pay more...

Retired executive vice-president of marketing Lawrence Loh suggested in a letter to The Straits Times Forum Page last Wednesday that the National Environment Agency embark on a study to identify the sources of littering, followed by a public education campaign.

When contacted, Mr Loh, 65, said that although the fines have been made stiffer, many may not be aware of them.

"Perhaps it is a question of enforcement, as not enough are being caught... More publicity of those prosecuted for littering may deter others from doing so," he said.

Bank analyst Jason Ng, 24, said the litterbugs need to be shamed more. "They should be made to do Corrective Work Orders in the Central Business District, or at crowded places during the weekends," he said.

...or rope them in

Mr Tham Tuck Meng, 42, a teacher, suggested in his letter to The Straits Times that the authorities beef up anti-littering enforcement at big events.

He later told this newspaper that CWOs may not work as ingrained habits are hard to change. The offenders may also feel unfairly penalised and may litter even more.

Instead, litterbugs could be tasked to lead anti-littering outreach campaigns.

"That will bring them over to the side of the enforcement authorities," he said.

Setting the standard

Mr Eugene Heng, founder and chairman of green group Waterways Watch Society which conducts clean-up and environmental activities, suggested a school syllabus on anti-littering that sets the standards for a green city.

He said: "We should have a... designated class every week that teaches students what is littering, much like how we teach kids how to brush their teeth.

"You and I can both think we are clean but have different standards, and they might not be right."

Students could also watch an educational video that features a day in the life of a cleaner, said research coordinator Jeremy Heng, 26.

He added: "The video could feature an elderly cleaner or a foreign worker, and they can see how thankless but significant their roles are."

Groceries for cleanliness

Ms Tan Lin Neo, 57, a sales associate, said town councils could consider issuing grocery vouchers to households located in the cleanest housing estates.

Reducing packaging waste

Mr Lee Yong Se, 32, who works in the social sector, said reducing waste, such as plastic bags and receipts, is one way to curb the littering habit.

"Many people take plastic bags to line their bins at home, but how much trash is actually produced, so much so that it is necessary to keep a stockpile of plastic bags at home?"

Find out causes of littering, then get tough

SINGAPOREANS seem to have to bear sole responsibility for our littering woes ("Counting on S'poreans to keep environment clean" by the Public Hygiene Council; July 16, 2014, "PM reacts to meadow of trash that music fans left behind" and "Singapore becoming a 'garbage city', says ESM Goh Chok Tong"; ST Online, both published last Thursday, and "Time to grow up, clean up after ourselves" by Miss Tan Lin Neo; yesterday).

Singapore was once touted as a clean city, following decades of the Keep Singapore Clean movement and our anti-littering laws.

So what went wrong?

It cannot be the result of the "maid mentality", as foreign domestic workers are not a new phenomenon in Singapore.

Have people's mentality and attitude towards cleanliness and hygiene changed? Have people become more self-centred and anti-social? Are the anti-littering laws and clean movement losing their effectiveness? How about the impact of the influx of foreign workers over the years?

In my letter last year ("No need to dangle carrot in anti-littering drive"; Forum Online, July 24, 2014), I highlighted the case of a mountain of trash left behind when a large group of foreign workers ended its Sunday outing at the grounds of St Andrew's Cathedral.

The situation is no different at beaches, parks and open spaces.

In order to nip the littering problem in the bud, we need to target both Singaporeans and foreigners so that we do not miss the forest for the trees.

The National Environment Agency should embark on a thorough study to identify the sources of littering. This should be followed by a public education campaign, coupled with heavy penalties to be imposed on offenders.

Words, advice and pleas will not be effective. Only drastic measures can ensure a behaviour and attitude change.

Lawrence Loh Kiah Muan
ST Forum, 9 Feb 2015

Anti-littering efforts through enforcement, engagement

WE THANK Mr Lawrence Loh Kiah Muan for his feedback ("Find out causes of littering, then get tough"; last Wednesday) and agree with him on the need to have a good understanding of the causes of littering and to take tough action against offenders.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) takes a strict line against all littering offenders, regardless of nationality.

NEA issued about 19,000 tickets for littering last year, which is almost double that in 2013.

Thirty-one per cent of these tickets were issued to non-residents.

Last year, there were also 688 instances of Corrective Work Orders (CWOs) imposed by the courts, more than double the total CWO figure of 261 in 2013.

To enhance deterrence, NEA has also imposed stiffer penalties on recalcitrant offenders.

The Environmental Public Health Act has been amended to deter those who continue to act irresponsibly.

Under the revised Act, the maximum court fines for littering offenders have been doubled since April 1 last year, to $2,000 for a first conviction, $4,000 for a second conviction and $10,000 for the third and subsequent convictions.

The courts may also impose CWOs, requiring offenders to clean public areas for up to 12 hours.

While enforcement is important, to tackle the littering problem effectively, a new social norm is needed where society frowns upon littering as a socially unacceptable act, and where members of the public proactively remind litterbugs to dispose of their litter properly.

Towards this end, NEA will continue to work with stakeholders to establish and foster in our community the right values of keeping our environment clean, and to encourage a ground-up movement that translates these values into action.

For our non-resident population, NEA conducts regular road shows at foreign workers' dormitories to raise greater awareness of social norms, such as that of not littering.

We also engage foreign workers through educational materials in their native languages and reinforce the litter-free messages through briefings conducted by their supervisors.

All of us in Singapore want to live in a clean city, and not just a cleaned city.

Each of us as an individual and a member of the community has an important role to play to ensure that.

Tony Teo
Director, Environmental Public Health Operations
National Environment Agency
ST Forum, 9 Feb 2015

No litter please, we're Singaporeans
By Han Fook Kwang, Editor At Large, The Sunday Times, 9 Feb 2015

Once in a while, something happens that puts the spotlight on an entire community.

When it does, you can use the opportunity to confront the truth and deal with it honestly.

Or you can look the other way or, worse, find an excuse to blame someone else.

That moment for Singapore came last month when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a picture of the rubbish left behind after a music festival at Gardens by the Bay.

He contrasted it with another photo of football fans from Myanmar cleaning up their section of the new National Stadium after a game.

The difference was so huge you could drive a garbage truck through it.

Unfortunately, the PM's comments about the state of cleanliness in the country were criticised by some for being unfair to Singaporeans when the litter was left mostly by foreigners attending the show, or so they claimed.

It might well be true that there was a sizeable foreign crowd and that they, too, littered the grounds, but it's clearly rubbish to say Singaporeans were not responsible as well.

There is growing evidence that the littering problem has become noticeably worse, and it isn't because it's someone else's fault.

This newspaper has received letters from regular visitors who say the country is dirtier compared with how it was when they last visited.

They've written fondly of how they remembered the city years ago and described their disappointment that it hasn't kept up its reputation as one of Asia's cleanest.

When the National Environment Agency last did a major survey on the issue in 2010, 36 per cent of respondents (read: citizens) said that they would litter if they believed they wouldn't be caught.

The chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, Mr Liak Teng Lit, thinks it has become so bad, Singapore is now facing a "crisis of cleanliness".

He should know, as he participates regularly in cleaning-up activities, picking up litter in public places.

The problem isn't that Singapore isn't clean, though it might not be as spotless as it used to be.

It is that it has required an army of cleaners to keep it so - 70,000 at last count.

Remove these workers, even for a short period like after a performance in a public place, and it's clear where the problem lies.

This isn't a new issue.

In 1988, a No Sweeping Days experiment was tried in several places around the island.

Orchard Road turned out pleasantly litter-free but neighbourhoods like Bukit Merah, Upper Boon Keng Road and Chinatown were reported to have "deplorable" levels of accumulated litter.

You have to ask this uncomfortable question: Why is it that after so many years of public campaigns, enforcement action and education, Singaporeans are still not as socially conscious as, say, those in Japan, Taiwan and, even more humbling, Myanmar?

Why, despite being one of the most educated and economically advanced nations in Asia, do so many Singaporeans not pick up after themselves?

It's interesting to read some of the comments following the PM's post, because it says a fair bit about what people think the issue is.

Here is a sampling of some of the more interesting views:

- Schools should do more to develop the right values and not be concerned only about academic achievements.

Those who made this point recalled their own school days when cleaning was part of their routine and wondered if it was still carried out today.

(Answer: Many schools say they do but I am not sure how seriously teachers and students view it.)

- Too many Singaporeans are brought up in households with maids who do all the cleaning.

- Singapore is a society that looks down on cleaners who are among the most poorly paid.

As a result, children grow up thinking cleaning up is beneath them and is a job done only by these lowly regarded workers.

All these might be valid points and help explain why the problem persists.

But there is one other reason which quite a few people have pointed out, and it is about ownership and responsibility.

When you care enough to keep your surroundings clean, it isn't just about cleanliness.

It's about community, and about caring for the other members who share the same space.

In societies that exhibit a high level of civic consciousness, it is the regard and consideration for fellow citizens that drive and shape people's social behaviour.

So here's an even more uncomfortable question: Is the larger problem not one of cleanliness, but of Singaporeans' sense of belonging, which is weaker than in other societies?

Littering is merely a symptom of this more serious issue.

How do we strengthen this sense of community?

Perhaps it's not possible to rush these things, not even in a jubilee year, and Singapore will eventually get there in the fullness of time.

But a good start would be to acknowledge the problem and recognise that social behaviour is shaped by deeds, not by words (read: not another campaign).

You have to constantly practise doing good to become good.

Greek philosopher Aristotle put it this way: "We acquire virtues by exercising them. People become builders by building, musicians by playing instruments... they become just by performing just acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones."

Going by this piece of ancient wisdom, you have to constantly practise being a good citizen - actively keeping public spaces clean, volunteering your services, advocating causes for the public good and participating in civic activities.

So, here's a simple suggestion to speed up the process.

Do away with paid cleaners in schools and make students responsible for cleaning them.

It's not enough to set aside one day in the school week to do so: Students have to know that if they don't clean their schools, no one else will.

That's how it is done in Taiwanese and Japanese schools, and you see the result in their societies.

They have had plenty of practice.

Dare Singapore schools take up this challenge?

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