From ‘Why it’s difficult to return trays at hawker centres’ and ‘Tray clearing didn’t work previously because of poor facilities’, 15 Sept 2012, ST Forum
(Tan Ying San): THERE is a reason why patrons at fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s or Burger King willingly return their trays while those at the hawker centres do not (“Tray-return campaign set for a comeback”; Wednesday).
In fact, patrons avoid seats near the tray-return racks at hawker centres. The reason is simple: Food at fast-food restaurants is dry while the food at hawker centres is a mish-mash of soup, fried vegetables, dark sauce and oily fish. Just look at the mess in the plastic basin where the used bowls and dishes are placed. Not only is it an ugly sight but it also smells sometimes.
If operators of hawker centres and foodcourts want patrons to return the trays, a big effort to clean up the collection centre will go some way in encouraging a change in behaviour.
(Tony Lee): PREVIOUS campaigns to encourage self-clearing of trays failed not only because of a lack of graciousness but also proper facilitation (“Tray-return campaign set for a comeback”; Wednesday).
Hawker centres are cramped with an average of 200 tables, with narrow passages in between. Thus it is already quite an effort to weave in and out of the crowds safely without spilling when carrying a tray of food and drinks to reach one’s selected table. Self-clearing of trays will also lead to congestion.
Even if most patrons were to clear the tables by returning their trays of empty plates and bowls to the shelves placed at various corners in the hawker centre, the cleaners will still be needed to sort them out and return them to the different stalls for washing. Patrons must also walk around to find empty tray shelves if those placed near popular food stalls are full.
While it is generally true that hawker food tends to be messier than fast food, if you take into account spillage or remnants like bones or leftover sauces, you could make the work easier for everyone by not WASTING food and taking less condiments than you need in the first place. You may also stack your bowls, plates and debris in a neat, compact manner instead of spitting bones onto the table. For whatever reason that makes it difficult for someone to return a tray, be it the stink of the collection centre, ‘congestion’, or ‘feeling bad’ for cleaners who need the job, the least you can do as a gracious human being is to leave your table in a state that wouldn’t require the next patron or worker to don rubber gloves and a decontamination suit to render it less hazardous to one’s health. Or at least not leave behind a sumptuous buffet for mynahs, crows and rats which will not only transfer the waste from tray to table to floor and chair, but poop in your unfinished wanton soup as well.
An exception to the above would be the Ikea cafe culture, where the food is equally messy but the collection centre is centrally located and accessible with a couple of cleaners on hand sorting things out. Maybe it’s not so ‘simple’ as just facilities or the kind of food you eat that determines one’s willingness to return a tray, but rather the psychology and habits of diners. I could just eat a piece of goreng pisang and leave the wrapper behind on the table even if there’s a empty, odourless trash can right next to me if I’m the sort of lazy bastard with a ‘maid mentality’. Also, hawker centre patrons are generally office workers in a rush, and if one had to queue for a longer time just to return trays compared to ordering ‘economical mixed rice’, then you may add another excuse to the list: My boss will kill me if I return back to office a minute late.
Even at Macs not everyone cleans up after themselves, and sometimes even the adults, including teachers of ‘brand name’ schools, fail to set an example. I personally witnessed a mother telling her daughter to ‘leave it, wait you get your hands dirty’ and walked out of Macs without clearing their trays. Whether out of absent-mindedness, fear of contamination or just plain laziness, the greatest contagion here is not the spread of disease and vermin from uncleared trays, but the attitudes of parents and other ‘role models’ infecting our children.
There have been filthy tables as long as there were hawker centres, and amazingly in the eighties our communal sense of self-consciousness was not as developed as it is today (or maybe we just ran out of cleaners), with fingers being pointed at everything else (hawkers and cleaners included) than at ourselves. Popular spots like Newton Circus greeted patrons with a ‘pong of stewing offal and rotting swill’. People also asked the government to deploy ‘efficient ladies’ to clear tables immediately after anyone leaves. Those who were part of that generation of sanitation expectation, including myself, are now flag bearers for the younger generation today. And if we don’t snap out of this dependence, how else will the kids learn?
So what can we do to drill tray-clearing into Singaporeans without resorting to toilet-training? Gentle reminders in ads and campaigns such as putting ‘Goodness Gracious’ stickers on tables are inadequate and a waste of time and money in my opinion. Fining failure to return trays under the same legislation as one penalises littering is too harsh. Instead of instilling fear, I think you’d need to create a herd mentality and exploit the Singaporean trait of ‘following the crowd’. If I’m at McDonalds and everyone around me suddenly walks off without clearing their trays, I’m less likely to clear mine, because EVERYONE else is not doing it. Likewise, if I’m at a hawker centre and I see Jenga stacks of dirty plates around me, my brain would register it as the ‘norm’ and I wouldn’t want to ‘stand out’ being the lone ranger clearing his tray.
I would suggest to NEA to recruit not tray ‘ambassadors’ or comedians in starched officer uniform to tell people off, but ‘actors’ instead to dish out some serious guerilla-tactic mind games. This is how I imagine it would work: Target families tucking into dinner in a hawker centre, making sure they are kids in the group. Deploy an ‘actor’ family (with kids as well) next to your target and make sure you finish your food before them. Make the kid actor walk off without the tray while the rest have already started carrying theirs. Make the adult actors admonish the kid ‘Boy boy, what are you supposed to do after you finish your food?’. As the kid does so grudgingly, have the adults deal a little life lesson on being compassionate to fellow human beings and give direction to tray collection areas. Make sure all this is seen and heard without sounding like you’re in Jack Neo film. Chances are your target and those around them will follow suit in a chain reaction of tray clearing. Better still, secretly film the entire scene and upload on Youtube. Like the mini fly haven of a landfill that is the hawker centre tray collection centre, it will go VIRAL.
Hello, NEA are you listening, I’m trying to have CONVERSATION here.