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Want others to return their trays? Keep doing it yourself so they will follow suit

Eight years ago, Singapore started its nationwide tray return campaign to encourage patrons to return their trays and used crockery at dining establishments.

Want others to return their trays? Keep doing it yourself so they will follow suit

A TODAY reader urges Singaporeans to make a conscious effort to return their trays after meals at hawker centres to nudge those around them to do likewise.

Eight years ago, Singapore started its nationwide tray return campaign to encourage patrons to return their trays and used crockery at dining establishments. 

Since then, a plethora of initiatives have been launched, from colourful posters plastered across our hawker centres to the deployment of SG Clean Ambassadors and smart robots. 

Earlier this month, the authorities announced that coffee shops and food courts looking to install tray return facilities will soon be able to apply for funding to defray some of their costs under the Clean Tables Support Scheme.

Yet, evidently, Singapore has not found the key to solving this longstanding issue, as many diners are still leaving behind their trays and crockery for cleaners to collect and return. 

Interestingly, this is in stark contrast to what we see daily in our schools. From primary schools to universities, it is common for everyone to return their trays and crockery after eating.  

We, however, often see the same students who consistently return their trays in school fail to do so away from their campuses.  

This begs the question: Why do some abandon this practice when eating out?  

One possible psychological explanation points to social norms. 

Different settings present different norms about the types of behaviour that are acceptable, or the unwritten rules that people are expected to follow. 

In schools, as people around us practise tray return regularly, everyone is expected to comply, making it almost second nature to do likewise.  

In contrast, as fewer people are returning their trays at hawker centres, it might have inevitably conveyed norms for not doing so. 

As such, one might feel less compelled to return their trays and might go along with the norm in that setting.  

Does this mean that we should resign ourselves to having dirty trays lying around at our hawker centres and coffee shops? 

I doubt so, as I believe in the power of minority influence — that is, an individual or the minority's capability to exert influence to alter the beliefs and behaviours of the majority. 

What we can do, on our part, is to make a conscious effort to return our trays after we are done eating. Beyond easing the cleaners’ heavy workload and raising public hygiene standards, doing so can also serve to nudge those around us to do the same.  

By influencing friends and family, I am hopeful that we can kickstart a ripple of positive social influence. 

Let us come together and strive towards establishing civic-mindedness and social responsibility as the norm for our nation. 

Have views on this issue or a news topic you care about? Send your letter to voices [at] mediacorp.com.sg with your full name, address and phone number.

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tray return hawker centre coffee shop

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