PEOPLE who visit Singapore for the first time often rave about how clean and green this country is.
That is a fact and Singaporeans are proud of it.
What is not known to the visitors, though, is that the country's clean image is, in large part, the result of having an army of cleaners.
In other words, Singapore is a cleaned city.
In January, Emeritus Senior Minister (ESM) Goh Chok Tong wrote on Facebook that Singapore is likely to become a "garbage city", if not for the cleaners who pick up after its people.
As of September, there were 52,000 cleaners working tirelessly behind the scenes to keep Singapore clean.
ESM Goh's strong words came after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong posted a photograph of the Meadow at Gardens by the Bay, which was covered with litter after 13,000 people attended the 2015 Laneway Music Festival.
The photo and Mr Goh's comments sparked yet another debate on littering. Many people wrote to The Straits Times Forum page, lambasting the litterbugs.
One reader, Jolly Wee, said that in addition to a hefty fine, litterbugs should be made to pick up litter in the area where they live. "This would be more shameful, as they would be seen by their neighbours - people who know them," he said.
Despite decades of national campaigns, tougher laws and stepped-up enforcement, littering remains a difficult problem to sweep away.
A total of 19,000 fines were meted out for littering last year, almost double that of the year before. This was despite the doubling of fines for littering in April 2013 to $2,000 for the first conviction, $4,000 for the second conviction and $10,000 for the third and subsequent convictions.
As Liak Teng Lit, chairman of the Public Hygiene Council, said in an interview with The Straits Times in February: "My own impression is that the last couple of years were particularly bad. Behaviour began to shift, people no longer worried about being caught for littering.
"It is also the whole society changing. There are a lot of people who take it for granted that people will pick up after you."
Earlier this month, the first national litter-picking event was held with the hope of getting people to pick up after themselves and others, and to deter them from littering.
The islandwide, day-long Operation We Clean Up! saw more than 10,000 volunteers fan out across the country to pick up litter. The mass clean-up spanned 133 locations and resulted in the collection of more than 7,000kg of rubbish.
It was a good idea, but it remains to be seen if people will actually change their habits and behaviour for the better.
Another area that can do with more enthusiastic responses from the ground is domestic recycling.
Singapore wants to have an overall recycling rate of 70 per cent by 2030. For years, it has succeeded in pushing up this rate, from 49 per cent in 2005 to 60 per cent last year.
But when it comes to domestic recycling, the results are dismal.
In 2013, the domestic recycling rate was only about 20 per cent, compared with the 61 per cent overall recycling rate. Last year, the rate for domestic recycling fell to 19 per cent.
The poor showing was in spite of national efforts to make domestic recycling convenient for residents.
In September, the National Environment Agency (NEA) achieved a long-term environmental goal of having one recycling bin placed at the foot of each Housing Board block.
In January last year, the HDB said it would install recycling chutes in all new HDB blocks, with throw points on every floor, after an encouraging pilot programme in Punggol.
The drop in the domestic recycling rate last year was largely attributed to an increase in food waste output. About 788,600 tonnes of food were thrown away last year, with only 13 per cent recycled, even though food now accounts for about 10 per cent of all waste in Singapore.
This is one problem that the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources is trying to tackle, most recently with a pilot programme to be conducted this year. Two hawker centres will each get a recycling machine to convert food waste and leftover food into compost or water.
Another recycling initiative is the seven-month electronic waste recycling pilot organised by the South East Community Development Council, the NEA, Panasonic and e-waste recycler Cimelia. It collected about 10,200kg of recyclables from over 1,800 pieces of e-waste contributed by residents. The programme is now being expanded to five more neighbourhoods in Marine Parade.
The need to recycle more has grown over the years, as Singapore's landfill will run out of space between 2035 and 2045, if the nation continues to dispose of more than three million tonnes of rubbish a year.
While there are many initiatives and programmes to get Singaporeans to go green, they are effective only if people do their part.
To be sure, some people are genuinely clueless about how to be eco-friendly, and that is where education comes in.
But having the right attitude is just as important.
In an NEA study done from 2009 to 2010, two in 10 people did not think they were littering if their serviettes were blown away by the wind. Three out of 10 thought leaving rubbish on a park table after a barbecue was not littering.
Such mindsets have to change.
To be fair, there are areas in which Singapore has done well.
It reduced its carbon intensity - or the amount of carbon dioxide emission per dollar of gross domestic product - by 30 per cent between 2000 and 2010. This was way ahead of the average decrease of only 0.12 per cent globally.
Singapore also implemented the Energy Conservation Act, which took effect in April 2013, that requires large energy users such as waste-management firms to appoint an energy manager, monitor and report energy use, and submit energy-efficiency improvement plans.
More and more buildings are also meeting the Building and Construction Authority's various Green Mark standards, part of a scheme that rates buildings on their environmental impact and performance.
It was launched in 2005 and as of September, there were close to 2,200 buildings which met Green Mark standards.
Over the years, the Government has run many programmes and campaigns to educate and encourage Singaporeans to be environmentally friendly.
But until its people consciously do their part through good habits for the sustainability of Planet Earth, all the talk of being green is merely lip service.
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