Editorial: The most advanced Litter Act

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Minister of Health and the Environment Molwyn Joseph has expressed shock at the number of illegal dumping sites across our little bit of littered paradise. We, on other hand, are not shocked to hear the minister declare that there are over 120 unofficial dumping sites.  We may be shocked to hear that the minister is shocked, and we may be shocked to hear that the number is as little as 120, but overall we are not shocked by the number that has been revealed as a result of the national cleanup exercise.
The minister’s immediate response to the news was to promise that the government would address the problem by legislating an aggressive Litter Act. In the words of the minister, “We will be holding a public consultation on what will be the most advanced Litter Act to be passed in the world.” Public consultations? Check. Aggressive Litter Act? Check.  Most advanced in the world? What does that mean? After we got over the Trump-like “best in the world” description, we were left to wonder what an advanced Litter Act might look like. 
Surely, “advanced” cannot simply mean increased penalties or “fangs” as the minister puts it. The thing is, we already have a Litter Act on the books, but the problem is monitoring and enforcement. As we have asked before, if a law is not enforced, is it a law? Few, if any, are penalised under the current litter laws, so what does changing the penalties accomplish? If people know that they can get away with it, as they have been, then new penalties amount to nothing more than a parliamentary debate and some misguided praise of accomplishment.
The minister also declared that, “the year
2018 must be the transformational year when we see people of this country individually take responsibility for not littering and for keeping the environment clean.” Not to burst Minister’s Joseph’s bubble but making a declaration that 2018 is “the year” will do nothing much to change the situation. You cannot erase decades of indiscriminate littering and illegal dumping in an instant.
None of this is said to deter the minister from tackling this situation because we must start somewhere; however, we believe that the problem is deeply rooted in our society and requires more. We have repeatedly talked about the lack of civic pride in our nation and the poor habits that we are teaching the younger generation. If we do not start early, with education and a community effort, we will be spinning top in mud. We have already lost generations to the ‘do as you like’ culture, and until we start establishing boundaries, our civic pride will not return.
Along with education and a drive to reclaim civic pride, there needs to be consequences. That is where the “fangs” come into play. People litter and illegally dump because it is easy and carries no consequences. The primary reason for the latter is the lack of monitoring and enforcement. The police cannot be everywhere and the litter wardens, if they exist, are invisible. This is where civic pride and enforcement collide. It may sound a bit far fetched, but people need to be incentivised to report littering and wrong doing. We believe that it is cheaper and more effective to have active civilian monitoring and reporting than adding resources to the public service. With near every resident holding a cell phone camera in his or her hands, evidence is easy to obtain. Getting caught on tape, red handed, in the act of littering or illegal dumping should trigger two things: swift, stiff penalties for the perpetrator(s) and a reward to the ‘whistleblower.’
Many people point to Singapore as an example of how harsh penalties for littering, etc. works, but the success of Singapore is not in penalties alone. While the maximum fine for littering offenders is $2,000 for a first conviction, $4,000 for a second conviction, and $10,000 for third and subsequent convictions, those fines would be nothing if there were not the enforcement of littering rules. In 2014, for example, Singapore’s National Environment Agency (NEA) issued about 19,000 tickets for littering. Not just that, there is a community volunteer scheme that was launched in 2013, with hundreds of volunteers from civic groups that engage with litterbugs and attempt to persuade them to bin their trash. This gets back to the issue of civic pride.
Things are not all rosy in Singapore though. Besides the fact that it takes an army to keep the island clean, human nature is still at play, and unfortunately, human nature is selfish and lazy. In 2010, the National Environment Agency carried out a major survey on the issue of littering and 36 percent of respondents indicated that they would litter if they believed they wouldn’t be caught. This gets back to the issue of enforcement. 
So while we applaud Minister Joseph for recognising the problem and taking action, this is not a situation where Band-Aid solutions and declarations will make much of a difference. What is required is major surgery and a long term plan, and maybe the next generation will think twice before they callously discard their litter or illegally dump their garbage.

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