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 http://www.publichygienecouncil.sg/news-and-events/news/87) 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”.
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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.