10 Facts About the Compulsory Tray Return System That We’d Have to Get Used to Soon

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I’ll have to admit – it’s incredibly amusing to see CNA Insider host, Diana Ser, trying various techniques to try to get hawker centre goers to return their food trays and used crockeries.

However, whether it is an art installation made of food trays or an alarm system affixed to tables to remind diners to return their trays, it doesn’t seem to work particularly well.

She even worked as a cleaner for a few hours during the peak lunch period just to experience the hardships of our elderly cleaners, especially when they also need to sanitize the table and chairs, in addition to simple cleaning, every time a diner leaves the table… no thanks to COVID-19.

It does seem like the “gentler” methods, such as campaigns, to encourage diners to return their food trays and crockeries aren’t going to work as well as the government would like so it’s time to try a more heavy-handed method by bringing in the law.

1. Leaving litter on dining tables is now an offence under the Environmental Public Health Act.

Considering that COVID-19 can potentially spread to others through secondary transfer, it’s increasingly important for the public to clean up after themselves so as to protect the cleaners and other diners from getting infected.

Litter here includes used tissues and wet wipes, straws, wrappers, canned drinks, plastic bottles and food remnants.

In addition to litter, dirty food trays and crockeries are also included. These items will need to be returned to any of the Tray Return Points around the hawker centre if the diner/s want to avoid committing the offence.

This littering law isn’t a new law though. It’s more of an addition to an existing littering offence.

2. There will be an advisory period starting June 1, 2021.

Thankfully, the enforcement for this new system won’t kick in immediately.

The National Environment Agency (NEA) will launch an advisory period starting from June 1 to August 31, 2021 to help diners familiarise and adjust to the new system.

By “advisory”, it means that NEA officers will remind diners to clear their trays, crockeries and litter instead of issuing a fine on the spot.

There will also be plenty of posters and banners at hawker centres to remind diners to clean up after themselves.

One of the issues regarding this new system is the lack of tray return points at certain hawker centres.

As such, the NEA will also set up more of these return points during these three months.

3. You can get slapped with a fine for leaving litter, trays or crockeries behind after dining starting Sept 1, 2021.

Enforcement will kick in on Sept 1, 2021.

The officers will still remind diners to properly clear away their trays, crockeries and litter, and that the enforcement will only apply to diners who ignore the officers’ advice.


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First-time offenders will be given a written warning.

For a second time, the offenders will get a composition fine with a quantum of S$300, similar to other compoundable littering fines.

For unrepentant repeat offenders, they may eventually be given court fines.

4. You will still be penalized if you leave behind any litter even if you’ve cleared your tray and crockeries.

Clearing half of the stuff you’re supposed to while leaving the other half behind won’t do! There’s no room for 50% of the work here and expecting to be congratulated for “trying”.

Note that the definition of litter covers quite a bit of stuff, including food remnants like shells and bones, used tissues and wet wipes, straws, wrappers, canned drinks and plastic bottles.

If you’ve accidentally spilled gravy or a drink on the table, that is not considered litter.

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However, the NEA still recommends doing your part to clean up the spill and be considerate to the next diner/s.

Note that the trash that you place on the tray you’ve returned won’t be penalized.

5. And yes, if your used tissue “accidentally” falls to the floor, not picking it up and trashing it properly is a littering offence.

It’s not like in school where you can swipe all those eraser dust to the ground and be done with it.


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However, it might be hard to determine whose used tissue it is as the tissue might have been blown from a few tables away.

I’d also expect people to start kicking litter, like chicken bones, that ended up near their table to other tables.

Reverse food fight anyone?

6. Am I required to remove trays, dirty crockery and litter left behind by the previous diner?

The short answer is: No.

If it’s someone else’s dirty trays, crockeries and litter, then the cleaner will help you clear them away.


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7. Penalty for table littering for the elderly, children and people with disabilities?

This is a very contentious issue so the NEA has said that it’ll be taking a more pragmatic approach when it comes to enforcement.

Usually, enforcement won’t be taken against the disabled while the elderly and children below 12 years old will be strongly advised to do their part to keep the tables clean.

However, it is expected that the dining companions of these individuals help their less-abled friends to clear their trays and crockeries and throw away any litter.

8. Does this system applies to hawker centres only?

At the moment, yes.

But eventually, the system will apply to all public dining places including coffeeshops and food courts.


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However, note that since the system is still new, the NEA will likely use the hawker centre rollout as a case study to see if any changes to the system are needed before rolling out the same system to all other public dining places.

It is expected that enforcement action will be carried out in food courts and coffeeshops in a progressive manner in the fourth quarter of 2021.

9. Is this new fines-based system really necessary?

The NEA has launched the Clean Tables Campaign since Feb 6 to try to encourage diners to return their dirty trays and crockeries as well as binning their litter.

The campaign was part of the government’s Environmental Sanitation Regime to hopefully improve the cleanliness of public areas and promote good personal hygiene habits.

Needless to say, the 2% increase in the average Tray/Crockery Return Rate (TCRR) from 33% to 35% hasn’t been very satisfactory.


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Funnily enough, this percentage of actual Tray/Crockery Return Rate is in conflict with a survey conducted by NEA in March 2021 where most respondents said that they returned their trays and/or dirty crockery most of the time.

10. What about the aunty and uncle cleaners? Aren’t we taking away their jobs?

As iterated time and time again, cleaners will always have plenty of stuff to do.

For instance, after returning your trays and crockeries to the return points, the cleaners will have to separate the crockeries and trays, get them actually cleaned before returning the trays and crockeries to their respective hawker stalls to be used again.

Taking the pandemic into consideration, they will now be required to sanitise the tables and chairs, in addition to simply wiping them down with some generic cleaning agent.

In fact, by doing your part, you’ll be helping to reduce the workload of these elderly cleaners – note that the average age of a cleaner is 60 years old – who have to spend hours on end on their feet, shuffling from table to table.


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Featured Image: 2p2play / Shutterstock.com

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