Returning trays after meals?

Time and again, the press in Singapore laments about people not returning their food trays to the tray collection point after having their meals at hawker centres and food courts. Many schemes have been tried, to no avail, to get diners to return their trays. This is a symptom of a deeper issue, of course, but what practical thing can be done to get diners to return their trays?

A typical tray return station at one of Singapore’s hawker centres

On 30 Jan 2021, “What would make Singaporeans return their trays? How about a siren?” appeared on the Channel News Asia site. This was tried out at one of the hawker centres in Singapore and it found that 66 percent of diners returned their trays at tables where the device was installed, compared with 5 percent of diners who returned their trays at tables where the device was not installed.

Do we really need reminders and campaigns to install  and sustain civic virtue in us as a people? Are 24-hour surveillance cameras and similar devices essential to make sure that we behave? How much more blockchain-like thinking needs to be forced on us?

We all know that change for the better needs to happen from the inside out. However, human nature is such that we tend to rely on outside-in change, and throw a fit from time to time when we realize that external constraints actually take away many of our freedoms. Well, that’s because external constraints are needed to contain addictions which can never be satisfied and which lead to violence and breakdown of civil society.

Do I have one practical suggestion? Certainly. Stop subsidizing slovenly behaviour. Remove the ubiquitous cleaners and let diners marinate in their own stench. Cleaners will only clean trays and crockery at the washing points next to the tray return stations. Let diners clean up after themselves, and clean dirty tables before their own meals if they have to.

Got the stomach for that? Good, that’s settled, then. No? Then pay more to eat at hawker centres or go eat at restaurants which clean up after you.

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