Litter-control: Add garbage bins, chuck banners

Study distinguishes litter-control methods that work from the ineffective ones

Grace Chua Straits Times 30 Oct 11;

Bin there, done that.

Researchers wanted to know what it was exactly that would lead people to litter less.

Well, a year-long study which ended last year, has come up with the answer.

Adding more bins had the best effect, nearly halving the rate of littering.

The most ineffective method was the use of banners reminding people not to litter.

The 'dustbin test' carried out at four town centres was part of a sociological study conducted by the National Environment Agency, with experts from the National University of Singapore led by sociologist Paulin Straughan.

The study, which ran from 2009 to 2010, has been published. Co-pies of the book were distributed to schools and public libraries yesterday.

A soft copy can be viewed at

Its key findings: 62.6 per cent of the 4,500 people surveyed say they never litter; 1.2 per cent are hardcore litterbugs who admit to dropping their trash most of the time; and 36.2 per cent do it out of convenience.

Smokers insisted that it was culturally acceptable to flick their cigarette butts away after smoking, and students and young people were more likely to litter.

To cut down littering, the researchers tested four different litter-control methods at four town centres: more bins; banners encouraging binning; having more uniformed NEA officers around; and stationing volunteers to spread environmental messages.

They found that having more bins cut littering most at Tampines while using volunteers cut littering in Bedok by about 30 per cent.

Banners, generally, failed to have an effect.

'Singaporeans may be suffering from campaign fatigue, being tired of being told what they should do as good citizens,' the study suggested.

Paradoxically, having enforcement officers around reinforced the idea that littering was okay.

Singaporeans do tend to litter and the presence of enforcement officers only serves to remind them that this is the fact, the study suggested.

Also, enforcement officers cannot be everywhere, so 'their ability to discourage littering is outweighed by the fact that their presence also encourages littering'.

The study also showed that some communities are just cleaner. For instance, Tampines town centre was much cleaner than the town centres in Yishun and Bedok.

No one knows why this is so, but Associate Professor Straughan suggested that people might feel more guilty about littering if a place was well maintained.

Focus groups that were tapped suggested litter bins could be redesigned with bigger openings or foot-pedals so people need not touch them.

Using the study's data, the NEA has tweaked its anti-littering approach.

For example, the agency worked with town councils to add more bins in five HDB towns.

They watched bins before and after the additions to see how many times the bins overflowed.

Before more were added, the bins overflowed 22 times, but that stopped once there were extra bins.

NEA, in its anti-littering campaign last year, launched the Litter- Free Ambassadors programme, in which volunteers reach out to family, friends, neighbours and their communities.

By 2015, the agency said in its study, it aims for a 'measurable and perceptible reduction in litter'.

'The physical measures must go in tandem with normative (or cultural) shifts, which take a longer time to change,' said Prof Straughan.

'It's not just about the act of littering, but it's about civic consciousness; it's about how we protect or abuse common shared space. It's about pride in our country, this place we call home.'


How do you make not littering a cultural norm in Singapore?

Such a question has vexed Public Hygiene Council chairman Liak Teng Lit since the council was formed last month.

A sociological study of littering carried out by the National Environment Agency found that it is already a norm to some extent: six in 10 respondents never litter, nearly four in 10 would litter if they could, and about 1 per cent are die-hard litterbugs.

But the norm-abiding majority need to speak up directly, Mr Liak urged. 'One of the first things we need to change is for the majority who are not littering to express their disapproval.

'You can do it without inviting a fight - I've been doing it for many years, and no one has punched me in the nose yet,' said the affable health administrator, who is also chief executive officer of Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.

Such social norms already exist, he said. 'Take, for example, queue-jumping - almost nobody does it now because the minute you do, you get dirty looks.

'If you believe in something, you'd better stand up for it.'

The council, which comprises 21 people from the public sector, environment groups and industry, is also trying to figure out where people do not litter and why, to make an example of such places.

'There are bright spots and we need to replicate these, to find out what's working there,' Mr Liak said.

Council members are appointed for a two-year term, but they say it is a long-term task.

Mr Liak quipped: 'We want to work ourselves out of a job as soon as possible.'


The National Environment Agency's study, done by researchers from the National University of Singapore, looked at different ways to slash trash in various areas.

In town centres

Enforcement officers (Ang Mo Kio): The result was inconclusive.

Community volunteers (Bedok): Decreased littering by 30.5 per cent.

More bins (Tampines): Decreased littering by 49.8 per cent.

Banner ads (Yishun): Inconclusive.

At places where foreign workers congregate

Enforcement officers: Increased littering by 101.3 per cent.

Banners telling workers of the penalties if they are caught littering: Increased littering by 105.4 per cent.

The researchers explained: Because enforcement officers could not be everywhere in a large open field, their presence actually encouraged littering if the act could go undetected.

And banners paradoxically led to workers thinking it was the norm to litter, which encouraged further littering.

At East Coast Park

Enforcement officers: Inconclusive.

Bins with environmental messages: Increased littering by 61.5 per cent.

Larger bulk bins to keep up with barbecue and picnic waste: Inconclusive.

Banners: Inconclusive.

The researchers explained: The interventions were 'intrusive' and might have turned people off.

'Future community and communication interventions need to be less intrusive, more personal and pitched correctly,' the study said.