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  The Straits Times 27 Nov 06
No bins? NEA bust shows litterbugs are just lazy
By Jessica Lim

12 people caught and fined in 3 hours for littering in Orchard Road, despite dustbins nearby

MISSION: a three-hour litter watch in Orchard Road.

No ifs, just butts - thrown by litterbug smokers. All this near bins only a few steps away. Caught, on The Straits Times team's cameras: four out of 12 such culprits within the three-hour watch. They were slapped with on-the-spot fines of $200.

The team had accompanied six National Environment Agency (NEA) officers last Thursday in their stake-out along Orchard Road.

There was a bin roughly every 30m. Despite this, the 12 were caught flicking cigarette butts onto the pavement. Most did so without even a hint of hesitation. Of these, 11 were within 5m of a bin. The ages of this dirty dozen ranged from 19 to 46.

Why did they do it? In an informal Straits Times poll last week, 16 out of 110 Singaporeans interviewed had said a lack of bins was their main reason for littering. Another 19 said they littered because they knew others would pick up the rubbish, while 21 said they were simply too lazy to go look for a bin.

Thursday's NEA bust suggested that laziness is indeed the most common factor. One of the surprised culprits summed it up when he said: 'I didn't know I would be caught. I was being lazy.'

Complaints about the lack of bins cut no ice with the NEA. The number of bins around the island has increased steadily over the past 10 years, the agency said. There are now 7,300 bins along public roads in Singapore.

Even so, the number of litterbugs caught has gone up, from 3,819 for the whole of last year to 4,818 in the first 10 months of this year. People under 30 made up 60 per cent of offenders.

Anti-littering campaigns have gone on for the past 38 years, but have come under the spotlight again after Environment and Water Resources Minister Yaacob Ibrahim observed in June, when launching the Singapore Litter-Free Campaign, that there had been an increase in littering.

Since then, new ways are being sought to tackle the problem. If the idea of dirtying the streets is not a deterrent, being caught certainly can be. The $200 fine which 19-year-old student Albert Josuama got proved painful. 'I won't do it ever again because it is so expensive,' he said.

But at littering hot spots like bus interchanges and hawker centres, the NEA still fines about 16 people a day, mostly for flicking cigarette butts and throwing away items like tissue paper and disposable cups.

Experts say enforcement of anti-littering laws is the best way to start tackling the problem, but most important of all is changing people's mindset. Environmental lawyer Kala Anandarajah said: 'Enforcement of laws brings on forced behaviour, and hopefully over time, this behaviour will become a natural habit.'

Ultimately, said Singapore Environment Council executive director Howard Shaw, the problem comes down to 'lack of ownership'. He said: 'Litterbugs do not think public places are their homes and take little pride in keeping such areas clean.'

Mr Shaw, who oversees all programmes organised by the council, suggests that existing anti-littering campaign messages should be altered to better target the mindset of litterbugs. 'Campaign messages so far have been about keeping Singapore clean. This could be changed to target ethical issues, not just the purely aesthetic aspect of littering. 'Litterbugs have to understand how littering connects with the broader environment,' he said.

Such a mindset among youth might be due to their comfortable lifestyle, like having a maid to pick up after them, said Dr Amy Khor, Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Environment and Water Resources), at a press conference recently.

But this mindset can be changed, said consultant psychiatrist Brian Yeo. Still, this 'habit cultivation should start young', he said. He said: 'Parents should help to set social norms, to teach children to understand the sharing of space and the concept of cleanliness. Children might resent change when they grow older, so it is good to start early.'

Related articles on Singapore: reuse, reduce and recycle
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