No diner fined since return tray rule started at eateries, only 2 warnings issued

Trays unreturned after use at Old Airport Rd Hawker Centre.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - No fines have been imposed on diners for failing to return used crockery and trays at eateries since the rule was enforced at hawker centres, coffee shops and foodcourts more than a year ago.

As at Jan 1, 2023, two written warnings had been issued to diners for refusing to heed enforcement officers’ advice to return their used crockery, said the National Environment Agency (NEA) in response to queries from The Straits Times.

Officers from NEA have been doing their rounds at hawker centres since Sept 1, 2021, to enforce the tray-return rule. At coffee shops and foodcourts, Singapore Food Agency (SFA) officers have been carrying out checks since Jan 1, 2022.

Nine out of 10 diners are returning their trays, said the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment.

Enforcement officers record the particulars of diners who do not comply with their advice to return the used trays and crockery.

First-time offenders are issued a written warning. Second-time offenders face a $300 composition fine, and subsequent offenders may face court fines of up to $2,000 for the first conviction. 

The SFA said it has not issued any written warnings as diners have been compliant when told by its officers to return the trays.

Fines are “preventive deterrence”, said Dr Joanne Yoong, principal economist and behavioural scientist at Research for Impact, a Singapore-based think-tank focusing on behavioural and social sciences. “The amount is credible and significant enough that people become aware (of the consequences). The number of fines actually levied is not really the main driver,” she said.

Greater awareness of enforcement officers doing their rounds and the possibility of a fine work to deter errant diners, she added.

In 2022, NEA enforcement officers reminded an average of 1,300 diners a month to return their used crockery at hawker centres. SFA officers reminded an average of 400 diners a month the same year.

Dr Brandon Koh, industrial organisational psychologist and lecturer at the Singapore University of Social Sciences, observed that in-person engagement with the enforcement officers is effective.

At the Old Airport Road Food Centre, an 85-year-old cleaner, who wanted to be known only as Madam Yong, said some diners still leave used crockery and trays on the tables, and that she has observed fewer enforcement officers at the hawker centre since the crowds returned with the easing of Covid-19 curbs.

Her co-worker, who wanted to be known only as Madam Tan, 77, said she has been reprimanded by diners several times for reminding them to clear their used crockery. She said measures such as imposing fines and putting up posters have been ineffective, and more enforcement officers are needed at the hawker centre.

At Maxwell Food Centre, Mr Prince Regalado, 33, who has been a cleaner there since December 2022, said posters have been useful, especially for the occasional tourists who are unaware of the tray-return rule.

Mr Regalado and his colleague, Ms Ning Shu-Li, 50, said the vast majority of patrons return their crockery after finishing their meals.

With cleaners no longer going to tables to collect used crockery and trays, some diners lament that tables are left unwiped.

Mr Frank Ho, 58, a retiree, who was dining at The Food Place in Raffles City, said: “Cleaners no longer come to the tables as often, and not many people carry tissue paper or wipes to clean the tables after using them.”

The high rate of return of tray and crockery – about 90 per cent – signals that the practice is becoming a social norm, said Dr Koh.

“Imposing punishment often comes across as controlling. This often reduces intrinsic motivation. If people return their trays only to avoid a fine, it shifts their attention to whether they will get caught, rather than the positive values of returning the tray.”

  • Additional reporting by Josiah Teo and Thomas Loke

This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.