The Return of The Return-Your-Food-Tray Campaign

I read the newspaper article, “Tray-return campaign set for a comeback” by Phua Mei Pin in The Straits Times on Wednesday, September 13, 2012.

The news article quoted Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan, “Beyond clearing trays… The more important message is to flag out behaviour and social norms.” This I agree with and unfortunately it is not going to be resolved by a tray-return campaign. In fact, it should not be about clearing a tray, it should be a campaign about clearing the table. How many times have you seen a table littered with food, utensils, cups, bowls and dishes, but not a tray in sight?

Before you try and address the aftermath why not address the root causes of the problem.

I see and believe one of the root causes of the problem is with the social norm at home. In my home, I insist and instill the habit of clearing the table of the plates and utensils to my 6-year old son. This is completely opposite to what my in-laws do and I suspect what a family with a domestic helper would do. My in-laws are always there at beck and call to coddle their grandson by clearing his dirty dishes and in the instance of a domestic helper the children get the idea that someone else will be there to do the dirty work.

Another reason for not having cleared tables is again a social norm that has probably manifested itself through improper education of the cleaners and bad practices or design with regards to cleaning. Let me explain. I admit I have not cleared my table and tray because I refused to eat with my meal still sitting on the tray and this is because the trays are disgusting. Trays are all too often wet, smelly and still covered in food scraps. There are occasions where the tray is clean but upon insistence from my spouse to remove the food items from the tray I do so and then the tray is tossed aside onto another table or it is kept by the cleaner.

So to help change the behavioural norm of removing items off the tray education and training needs to be put in place for the cleaners. The cleaners and the food centers need to understand and know how to practice good cleaning habits. Proper use of disinfectant sprays for table cleaning, trays should be washed or wiped with clean towels and detergent and finally consider storing or modifying the workflow for storing the trays. The last point is important because if you have standing water, especially water that is dirty, bacteria and germs will naturally start to multiply. Trays are themselves like shallow dishes and water never runs out from them when stacked right side up. Turn the tray over and water would run off the tray. To avoid the water cumulation altogether, the solution is to dry the trays. I know not always possible given the amount of trays used throughout the day.

Yet another reason for trays or tables not being cleared is plain and simply, Selfishness. It is the ‘Nobody does it for ME’ syndrome, so why should I do it for anyone else. It is an act of kindness and graciousness that some patrons will never understand and it probably grew from early childhood development. Clearing the table is not the only place that this group of people act selfishly. Urinating in the toilet is another area but that is a different campaign to talk about.

Lastly, the reason that does affect me when I dine at a food court or hawker centre is the lack of facilities to clear table of my tray, cutlery, leftovers, etc. In American and Canadian canteens there is always a place to clear the tray. The tray collection point plays an equal part in keeping the tables clean and clear but the whole campaign will fail again like it did in the 2003 and 2008 effort if the more important root causes are not addressed and to address the issue the campaign should be, “Clear the table for Me.”

I didn’t have any photo examples for this post hence the not so messy table but as you can see from this example, there isn’t a tray in sight but I will update it later today. I needed to pen the article and post it before I lost the passion to write about it.

– Chester –

PS> I have some thoughts on how the tables and trays could be redesigned so that it changes the behaviour of the patrons to use trays and clear trays easily.

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