Litter: We can do better

Here’s an issue that we don’t think is a VUCA-world one, but it is most certainly one that’s about a basic sense of self-respect.

Last week, the Prime Minister shared a picture of the garbage that was left behind after the 2015 Laneway Festival. As part of the recent debate on alcohol licensing, many photos of empty drink bottles and other trash left by weekend revellers in public places were circulated too.

Whether the mess in these images should be attributed to Singaporeans or foreigners, these scenes of people not picking up after themselves are becoming far too common across Singapore.

Among those quoted in the mainstream media about Laneway was someone who said that he thought there wasn’t a need to clear his own trash as the cleaning charges must have been included in the ticket price. Did he really mean to say, ‘since we have cleaners, we have the license to litter’?

What’s the scene at your school or college? What are students saying about this issue? Let’s dig a little deeper lie below the surface of trash.

First, is it a foreigner issue? This line of argument took off on social media around the Laneway situation – foreigners who don’t have the civic attitudes of Singaporeans left the trash behind. To examine this, I called a friend. I said that the proof of the matter would lie in what the situation has been after events attended primarily by Singaporeans. Was littering an issue after our annual National Day Parade at the Marina Platform? He said, ‘Yes!’ Volunteers are stationed at the end of every row and are kept well occupied after the parade is over.

Take a tour of the local neighbourhoods just before dawn, before the army of cleaners descend on them. Or, look around you in the movie hall before the lights are dimmed and notice the people sitting around you. When the lights are back on, what do you see and was it only foreigners that created the not-so-pretty picture?

Second, isn’t picking up the litter what we pay the cleaners to do? Rest assured, the cleaners have enough to do. When we attend a concert in the park or visit our neighbourhood hawker centre or step into our colleges, we aren’t asked to sweep up fallen leaves, wash the loos or wipe the window panes. The cleaning crews do what we don’t as individual visitors and users.

I recall a poster that the Restroom Association of Singapore once used titled “They’re losing their appetite and you are the cause of it”. It described the job of cleaners, in this case, of public toilets as “courageously tough” and it was a call not to make it harder than it needs to be for cleaners to earn their modest wage. Some consideration would be welcomed; there is no need to make it harder than it is.

Third, how can little old me make even a jot of difference? Yes, this question of individual impact and responsibility is the start and end of the problem. Littering is one of those difficult collective action problems – when one or two people along your street or corridor do not keep up the discipline, others are going to say ‘why bother?’ and that discipline breaks down quickly. On the other hand, if many more of us play our part and even take the time to remind our family, friends and yes, even the random individuals and foreign guests to maintain the discipline, we can turn the tide on littering.

I re-read the study “Towards a Cleaner Singapore. Sociological Study on Littering in Singapore (2011)”. This year-long study using survey, interviews and experimental methods is chockfull of interesting information and wisdom. In a survey of 4503 Singaporean residents (adults, youth and students), 62.6% declared they never littered, 1.2% admitted to littering all the time, and 36.2% were what the researchers called ‘Situational Binners’ who recognised that littering was anti-social but were overtaken by convenience and that thought that they would be able to get away with it when they did litter.

While enforcement and providing better infrastructure is what the government has done and can do, the study said that peer and family influence was a significant factor in determining if one litters.

Yes, I can make a difference and so can you to keep up the litter-free discipline. The next time you see someone litter, smile and say to him “hey, I think you’ve left something behind.”

The report adds that the key to value change lies in the answer to the final question: What is so bad about littering anyway? It is obviously about public hygiene but more so, it is about self-respect.

We have to think better of ourselves than to leave a place in a mess and rely on other people to pick up after us. Isn’t it embarrassing at all?

No, you are not the sole owner of the common spaces – the school compound, the void deck, Robertson Quay, the Meadow, but you are a joint owner of these. It isn’t your sole responsibility to make sure they are clean, but it is our joint responsibility to do so.

We take up that shared responsibility because it will make life in our dense city beautiful and harmonious but most of all, because it will be a reflection of our sense of taste, of what we know is the right thing to do, and of what is in our hearts.

Post-script: The National Environment Agency (NEA) issued 19,000 tickets for littering last year, 2014 and 31 per cent of these were issued to non-residents. This was published in a Straits Times Forum Page response by Mr Tony Teo, Director, Environmental Public Health Operations, NEA, 9 February 2015. According to figures from the Department of Statistics, the resident population of Singapore comprised 71.1 per cent of the total population; the non-resident population therefore, 28.9 per cent. Non-residents or ‘foreigners’ were by no means strongly over-represented in terms of the incidence of littering offenses for 2014.

[Editor’s note: The report, “Towards a Cleaner Singapore” can be found here. And look at what some students are doing to make a difference on the restroom and cleanliness issue here.]

Submitted by Dr. Gillian Koh, originally published here
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