Keep Clean campaign to return

The Ministry of Environment and Water Resources, bemoaning Singaporeans’ anti-social littering habits is “currently exploring some technological solutions,” reported the Straits Times, 17 January 2012.

I wonder what they’re thinking of. Perhaps more closed-circuit cameras located all over the city? Perhaps extensive deployment of face-recognition software?

But why resort to such costly solutions — beside the question of intrusiveness — when a simpler one is available?

This is especially when the newspaper report, citing a statement made by the minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, said: “A recent National Environment Agency [NEA] study showed that almost 40 per cent of respondents would litter out of convenience instead of making a conscientious effort to bin their trash.”

I believe he was referring to a study carried out by the NEA (see soft copy of the report at which made the news a few months ago.

The year-long study found that 62.6 percent of the public always bin their rubbish, “whereas 36.2% are situational binners who do so only when it is convenient,” or “because they do not expect to be caught and fined.” 1.2% admitted to littering “most of the time”.

Buried amidst much of the usual lauding of past state efforts at keeping Singapore clean, the book also reports the findings of a sociological study, starting from page 28.  The fourth component of this study looked at the effectiveness of various intervention models. Five town centres similar in age an demographic characteristics were selected for the actual intervention study (results from page 125 on), in which measurements were taken at Weeks 1, 2, 3 and 5 with the intervention implemented during Week 2. Results from Week 3 and Week 5 would thus allow researchers to measure the continuing effect (if any) of intervention measures.

Four intervention strategies were tried out with the fifth town centre used as control.

  • physical improvements to the infrastructure, i.e. more bins at closer intervals along walkways and a bin at the centre of a smoking area
  • enforcement by uniformed NEA officers during peak hours
  • promotion of cultural values, i.e. community invention involving volunteers and environmental messages
  • public awareness campaigns, i.e. banners with anti-littering messages

The following table gives the average litter count per transect square after lunch/dinner for each of the town centres during the entire study period. Note that Week 2 was the intervention week:

In Week 2, only Tampines and Bedok gave statistically significant results, said the report. Making a bin more conveniently available seems to work best at lowering litter count, while community intervention (volunteers suggesting personal-prescriptive norms) also works.

Increasing policing does not work, nor do more banners and posters. “Singaporeans may be suffering from campaign fatigue, being tired of being told what they should do as good citizens,” the report noted.

The minister now tells parliament that a new campaign will be launched this year.

Renewed drive to Keep Singapore Clean

Singapore will launch a renewed Keep Singapore Clean campaign this year.

A recent National Environment Agency study showed that almost 40 per cent of respondents would litter out of convenience instead of making a conscientious effort to bin their trash, said Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources.

Therefore, while the Government will continue to ensure a comprehensive and effective public cleaning regime, it must also focus its efforts on fostering a stronger sense of social responsibility among all residents, he added.

The campaign will focus on education, engagement, enforcement, and improving the cleaning processes.


– Straits Times, 17 January 2012.

Nowhere does the newspaper report say that more bins will be provided. Instead the ministry will explore “technological solutions”.

* * * * *

I noticed that post 9/11, many trashbins were removed from public areas. This happened not just in Singapore but in several cities around the world. Somebody must have imagined that  terrorists might leave bombs inside rubbish bins. Should one explode in a crowded area, the casualties would be considerable.

Today, it is a matter of practice that crowded public areas should not have any bins. Try looking for one at bus interchanges or metro stations and you will see what I mean. Yet these are the very areas with the most trash simply because they have the most people. This policy needs to be rethought.

The problem is compounded as landlords, including transport operators looking for rental income from their stations, discover that food outlets give far better yields than other retail trades. And, to maximise yields, food outlets are nearly all take-away. Why waste floor space by allowing people to sit at tables? But a lot of people don’t want to take away. They want to eat on the spot. So they stand around and eat out of plastic bags or styrofoam containers.

What we have is a situation where landlords and tenants have inadvertently embarked on a developmental strategy that generates public trash without taking any responsibility for it. Hence, a simple change in the rules will make a lot of difference: Require every food outlet (and they have to be licensed anyway) to provide at least one large bin nearby which they have to take care of.

* * * * *

The study also found that smokers were a major source of litter.

First of all, more effort has to be put in to reduce smoking. Previously, I have written about one good idea (Smoking out public service priorities) for which, regrettably, no one in government has shown any interest.

Regardless, the fact remains that for the foreseeable future, smokers will be among us. The thing to do is to designate smoking areas and provide sufficiently large sand trays and bins for them. As things stand, however, the report noted:

Smokers were observed congregating in one or two isolated, undesignated smoking areas in the town centres as they were prevented by law from smoking in sheltered areas and most were considerate enough not to smoke at high-traffic areas. Dr Goh (a researcher) identified one smoking area in each town centre and found that only two of the seven areas had a litter bin equipped with an ashtray. The bins were placed at the corners of the smoking areas and many smokers therefore did not make use of them. Given the volume of smokers who used the smoking areas, the ashtrays of the bins, if any, filled up quickly. The ashtrays were always full when the researchers checked and presented sight that would put off smokers from stubbing out their cigarettes.

* * * * *

In general, what the study found was that most people, smokers or not, were socially responsible. A majority would try hard to seek out bins for their rubbish. Even smokers took the trouble to congregate in customary smoking points, away from other people. What failed them was the state, in not providing sufficient infrastructure (bins), and profit-driven businesses.

That said, we need to recognise the fact that a good percentage of people are just plain irresponsible. Enforcement has a role to play, even if the town centre study didn’t show it to be effective, but maybe that has to do with the design of the study.

There is also a role for self-awareness and internalised social responsibility. This is probably best inculcated in the schools. Trying to do it with adults tends to end up as another preachy poster-and-banner campaign that only turns people off.

After decades of Keep Clean campaigns, it’s time to try a different approach.

19 Responses to “Keep Clean campaign to return”

  1. 1 jobless 23 January 2012 at 15:29

    1. more human traffic, more waste

  2. 2 ricardo 23 January 2012 at 17:08

    Singapore has a unique feature which other big cities find quite incredible. It has DAILY RUBBISH COLLECTION. All other big city dwellers consider themselves lucky to have a single weekly collection of their rubbish.

    The result? Singaporeans generate at least twice and maybe as much as 7 times as much trash as people in other developed nations. Because all this trash disappears from sight almost immediately, it is not noticed. Foreigners find it hard to understand why Singapore shopkeepers insist on extra packaging for anything sold.

    The cure? Announce that rubbish collection will go onto a weekly schedule in a months time. There will be chaos at first. Rubbish chutes in HDB flats will explode. Fly (illegal) dumping will rise through the roof.

    But there are measures in place to deal with such anti-social behaviour. Gentle but frequent application of the rotan is effective.

    As for smokers, cigarettes are an addictive drug, considered more addictive than heroin by the medical profession. Simply apply the present mandatory death penalty for possession.

    Everyone will soon learn.

  3. 3 liewkk 24 January 2012 at 09:57

    Your account reminds me of the contrasting collective behaviour of Koreans who are now famous for clearing their own trash overseas be it in world cup matches or demonstrations. I have visited Seoul several times, and found that people do not litter in spite of the absence of rubbish bins which are being discouraged. In fact, they actually take their trash home to be sorted out properly in recycle bins. The same goes for hiking trails where you do not see a single rubbish bin or any litter. It may sound nationalistic, but their sense of ownership is incredible! There is also a stronger level of environmental consciousness over there

    I do sense that the reliance on cheap foreign workers to do the dirty work has reduced the sense of ownership and collective responsibility over the public space, which is seen as the purview of the state and corporations. While there are those who are always irresponsible individual, something is wrong when it becomes endemic and collective in Singapore. Once again, i do suspect that there is a lack of control in the spaces that we inhabit that seemed to be controlled and managed by everyone excepts ourselves. We become in this respect, spolit but helpless brats in Singapore.

    Kai Khiun

  4. 4 ape 24 January 2012 at 20:36

    As a smoker, I take particular interest to bins for smokers. What I noticed is that most bins have small ashtray right at the top. The tray gets filled up very fast in areas where smokers congregate. To make matters worse, people throw rubbish, including tissue paper, into the ash tray instead of the bins. Small fire result and at times, entire bin caught fire.
    When I was in Melbourne, they use ‘cigarette bins’ instead. Normally situated beside a rubbish bin where smokers congregate. The ‘cigarette bin’ is a cylindrical container about 2 litres big. The top is slanted with 3 holes wide enough for cigarette/cigar. You can’t throw any rubbish but cigarettes into it. Any tissue papers, if left at the top, will just roll off. I find the cigarette bin a good complement to the rubbish bins.

  5. 5 Lion 24 January 2012 at 21:01

    The Japanese bag their rubbish and bring it home for disposal. Those who smoke have portable ash trays.

  6. 6 Dee 25 January 2012 at 03:26

    No, that problem is widespread even in certain HDB estates. Some of the blocks are full of litter everywhere and even the stairwells are full of broken bottles, cigarette butts, tissue paper, etc. And some of the estates definitely have a housefly infestation issue since at times, that tiny bin located by the lifts is barely enough to contain all the trash and people are forced to leave the trash by the bin. Also, the bin isn’t always emptied daily so trash accumulates quite fast.

    I think they need to use larger bins for a start, besides offering more bins at more locations. Also, have you noticed how hard it is to flatten certain trash so they can fit into the bin? I wonder how much space is occupied by uncompressed trash like styrofoam boxes or empty cans. Or how about trash like hard plastic boxes(like Ferroro Rocher containers) or wood?

  7. 7 Anonymous 25 January 2012 at 06:58

    the japanese will only bag and bin their rubbish if there’s someone looking. Try looking at their smokers corners at highway rest stops. portable ash trays my foot.

  8. 8 Chanel 25 January 2012 at 11:35

    A key reason for the increase in littering is the habit of our immigrants. I have witnessed chinese nationals littering unthinkingly even though there were rubbish bins around. At a comany fu ction held at a beach, a bunch of my indian national colleagues and their families left your paper plates, cups, uneaten food on tables after eating. It is a hard truth (to borrow a phrase from our king) that immigrants bring their abits from their homeland. NEA must knw that they are now dealing with hardcore litter bugs, not docile and mostly obedient S’poreans

    • 9 yawningbread 25 January 2012 at 17:39

      I have witnessed Singaporeans behaving the same way. Might it be a case of observer bias on your part? That because they were foreigners, you were cued up to make a mental note of their behaviour where, if the scene had Singaporeans doing likewise, it would strike you as so everyday, it doesn’t register in your memory?

      • 10 tk 26 January 2012 at 11:33

        in either case, whether it’s foreigners or locals doing the littering, there’s an army of FW coming along behind to clean up after everyone… surely that’s part of the problem too.

        i recall an experiment with “nagging wives” and “slobby husbands”, where the naggers were to refrain from asking their husbands to keep picking up after themselves all the time, and just put up with the mess for a week or so, making no comment, and not cleaning up. sure enough, within a week or so, the husbands started to clean up after themselves and contribute to household chores. i wonder whether this could work on a national scale? leave people to themselves, and trust them to do the right thing. actually, probably not in singapore.

      • 11 Rajiv Chaudhry 28 January 2012 at 17:26

        Considering the amount of money spent on producing a 179 page, full colour report on this subject, one would have thought the MEWR would have taken the trouble to quantify the differences in littering habits between Singaporeans and foreigners (including new citizens in the latter category).

        Another example of enormous sums of money spent without the right questions being asked. Quite meaningless. Or, perhaps, not politically expedient?

  9. 12 Anonymous 25 January 2012 at 12:27

    While I read some of the comments and agreed with their observations of Koreans and Japanese social responsibility of the binning their trash properly. Singapore should study from some their practices in these countries, including Taiwan and some European countries. In these countries, you can hardly found any trash bins along the street and surprisingly the streets are very clean with no litter along the street and bus-stops.

    In Korea, at those food centers that I had been, every one would return the utensil back to a collection point after finishing their meal. When I saw that, I did the same returning the utensil.

    In Europe, every bottle and can is refundable at EUR0.50 each. No one throw these away. I would have thought if these were thrown away, there would be someone to pick them up and exchange them for cash.

    Yes, habit has to be built up over time. However, we must also remember that Singapore is not just Singaporean alone, it is has many foreigners (PR, FTs, Foreign Workers, etc.) working here and with many coming from the third world where littering is common in their countries. Any campaigns the government is planning may have to factor in this foreign element.

  10. 13 sick of being trashed 25 January 2012 at 14:17

    Let’s not pussyfoot around the problem. If people insist on behaving like pigs, then they shoud be treated as swines. Round up these bugs and march them straight to the slaughterhouse. We kill two birds with one stone: reduce trash and reduce the population of trashers.

  11. 14 Vale 27 January 2012 at 12:26

    I have seen teenagers in school uniform leave behind the worst litter. So to be fair you can’t just say that its the Chinese Nationals who are doing this.

    To be honest if our own citizens can’t even be bothered to clean up their own mess – what will immigrants do? They will probably do as romans do in rome and adopt our bad habits.

    Just today – I stepped in the lift and saw a cup of syrup juice left on the lift railings the rest has been spilled on the floor making it very sticky.

    In another instance – stone tables around the BBQ pit around my HDB was left with so much litter and leftover food that flies were swarming all over the place and left a stench in the area. Its ironic that there is a dustbin next to them thats empty.

    I can’t understand why people would do this to the environment they live in.
    I guess its partly because we Singaporeans are particularly inconsiderate of others and take the cleaners that we get for granted.

  12. 15 Anonymous 27 January 2012 at 14:31

    To be fair, the “technological solutions” you mentioned are meant to apprehend high-rise litter offenders. Providing more bins will not solve the problem of high-rise littering.

  13. 18 pauls 28 January 2012 at 00:15

    “I noticed that post 9/11, many trashbins were removed from public areas. This happened not just in Singapore but in several cities around the world. Somebody must have imagined that  terrorists might leave bombs inside rubbish bins. Should one explode in a crowded area, the casualties would be considerable.”

    This justification for removing trash bins from high traffic public places has always struck me as being flimsy, but in any case seems amenable to solutions. E.g. instead of having wide, squat, opaque bins, within which large dangerous things can easily be deposited and concealed, install narrow transparent bins – ones that can accommodate the small articles that commuters/pedestrians typically throw into such bins, but which wouldn’t be able to conceal large, dangerous, and suspicious looking things. If someone did try to deposit an explosive in such a bin in a high-traffic area, either someone would notice it, or the bin would simply fill up quickly enough that a janitor would have to clear it and discover the thing anyway. Why has no one thought of this and tried to implement it? Is it too much to ask for narrow transparent bins?

    • 19 Leuk75 29 January 2012 at 22:48

      Narrow transparent bins – thats what the Koreans have implemented nationwide. Not the most litter friendly country, they have the same issue with not having a lot of bins around except in shopping areas and airports and hotels. But somehow, it works.

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