Volunteers should sway, not book, litterbugs


CITIES everywhere recursively run through a litany of means to tackle the litter scourge. More laws and enforcement officers. Stiffer fines and community sentences.

Social campaigns and educational efforts. When back at square one, there's always another list to go through as the authorities ponder why people litter.

Reasons often cited: Cleaners will clear the mess, not enough or poorly placed bins, no big harm is done, a throwaway consumer culture is to blame, the place is already dirty, others are doing it too, and so on, ad nauseam.

A more pertinent question would be why the social DNA of some people, like the Japanese, prevents them from "littering with notable intent", in American civic jargon.

Japan's cities are clean because people pick up not only after themselves but also after strangers. Japanese sports fans are known to clear their trash even when travelling abroad in hordes to attend major events.

The "pack-it-in and pack-it-out" culture of the Japanese makes the enjoyment of products incomplete until unwanted residue is duly dispatched in bins or recycling containers.

Probe the Japanese mentality and it would likely all boil down to common courtesy. What Singapore wouldn't give for such social graciousness to be firmly entrenched here. It will take more time and will not happen in his lifetime, Mr Lee Kuan Yew famously observed some years ago.

This should challenge more civic groups to redouble efforts to spread the word that the best solution to this intractable problem is people.

Hence, a volunteer corps is arguably the most significant part of the broad array of measures adopted by the nation to fight littering. This volunteer pool is to be enlarged to pound the anti-litter beat, expanding the reach of National Environment Agency officers.

But should the volunteers be allowed to carry warrant cards and issue fines to offenders on the spot? The latter would be going too far.

The scheme should not pit citizens against one another. This may happen if volunteers are somewhat overzealous and less than tactful. When money has to be handed over, one can expect offenders to raise questions and perhaps turn nasty as well - even government enforcement officers have been abused occasionally.

Given the broad mix of people here, volunteers have their work cut out for them in helping to change anti-social habits.

Good-natured persuasion by example is more useful than just issuing tickets - in comparison "an almost trivial exercise", as described by Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

If more champion this cause, the better is its chance of success. Just as litter begets litter, caring for the environment can be contagious too.

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