My litter experience
Litter has been an issue that I have battled with throughout much of my adult life. As a Londoner, I have dealt with the odd piles of newspapers and empty coffee cups scattered besides the bins in my local park. Though seeing this would shock me every time, I was very much used to this being an aspect of the London urban landscape. It was not until I left England that I saw how greatly the issue varied across the world and how we could learn a lesson from the different attitudes other countries have towards it.
During the past 3 years, I have seen the issue in all its forms, how it is exacerbated how it has been effectively reduced. Spending a year in Singapore and a year in Vietnam is what I can best describe as living in two extremes. Singapore’s spotless pavements and weirdly immaculate bus shelters contrasts greatly with the trash endemic to the streets of Hanoi.
While living in Hanoi, I find myself being regularly confronted with all sorts of waste. Leaking containers and dirty napkins can be found propped up against the walls of buildings or lay as a carpet beneath peoples’ sandals, permeating the surrounding areas with a foul stench. The worst is what appears to be deliberate; people relieving themselves in public places or waste being thrown from balconies. On a number of occasions, I’ve had the unpleasant experience of being hit by falling rubbish while on my way to work. I shake my head in disapproval at the results of such careless actions. I ask myself “Why?” and can come up with the following explanations.
When I first moved here, I often struggled to find somewhere I could get rid of my trash. A lot of the bins that you do find are heaped with waste, leaving you no choice but to abandon your rubbish in one of the messy piles besides them. One case is particularly worth recalling. As I was waiting at the bus stop, an elderly woman carrying a baby slipped on what looked like an empty crisp packet. I was relieved to see her immediately get up and that her and the baby were uninjured. Moments after this, the same woman proceeded to throw her finished food packaging on the same spot! I spent a while scanning the street in search of a bin and was unsuccessful. Not. One. Bin. It was shocking, upsetting and deeply infuriating. Where could she have responsibly thrown away her waste? And if she did happen to find one of the Hanoi’s regular bins, would she be lucky enough to also discover a recycling bin?
Bins are rare, recycling bins are rarer
Recycling bins are a very rare site in Hanoi. I’ve become familiar with the few places around the city (mainly the city centre) where you can spot a regular bin accompanied with a recycling bin. I call them hidden gems. Luckily, my boyfriend and I live relatively close to a skip, where people from our neighbourhood voluntarily go through bags and sort them into re-usable and non-reusable material. Therefore, we know that our trash is not contributing to this problem. However many people in Hanoi do not get to choose how their waste is disposed. People don’t get a say in how their environment is treated, simply due to the absence of recycling bins.
In Singapore, streets are practically littered (no pun intended) with recycling icons. This is not anything extraordinary. London has its own variety of signs and logos like ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ to remind people to throw their rubbish in the correct container. This is a basic and essential way of encouraging people to become more conscious about their daily habits.
Singapore’s extra commitment to tackling this issue does become apparent once you see the amount of bins that the government has installed across the country. Bins can be found almost EVERYWHERE. From alleyways to motorways. You would be going out of your way to litter. In addition to this, apps like OneMap by the Singapore Land Authority are designed to help people find the locations of public recycling bins across residential areas.
The all in one container, is an easy and cheap solution to littering and does not require huge investment in expensive technology.
It is clear that legal enforcement in Vietnam is preventing effective solution. Either there are no laws which ban littering, or the laws against littering are not strictly enforced. In the past, when I have asked my Vietnamese friends why they think the problem of public waste persists, they have often replied with ‘Thi hành luật không hiệu quả’ which means ineffective legal enforcement.
In contrast, Singapore is stereotypically known as a ‘fine city’, as one can be fined up to $15,000 for doing something as common as dropping a cigarette butt. With the aid of surveillance cameras, undercover officers patrol areas outside clubs and the outskirts of university campuses, where they are likely to detect litterers in mid-action or those recurrent offenders. When a person is caught redhanded, officers will take down their details and they will have to pay the fine at the relevant government office. If the fine is not paid, the person can be taken to court and even be jailed if they refuse to pay it.
Such regulations are feasible in Vietnam. Surveillance cameras may be an expensive investment to make, but there is no reason why the CCTV cameras that are already in use around local shop corners, cannot also be used to scare off litter bugs. This, as well as the brutal traffic police that I encounter daily in Hanoi, certainly show that strict enforcement is in existence. What the government needs to do is to implement the fines across the board, to anyone and everyone who violates the rules, without fear or favour. Employing laws of this nature and persisting with them, will mean that people will have no choice but to respect to them.
From my own experience, I have never seen a nation that enjoys spending time in public parks and spaces as much as the Vietnamese do. It’s a lovely tradition and one that highlights the strong attachment between the people and their land. This is a bond that goes back generations, and you can see how the Vietnamese countryside is romanticised in songs and films. With the recent Kong movie bringing about global admiration for the stunning landscapes of Ninh Binh province, most Vietnamese people I know are proud of the physical beauty of their country. So what better way to express this than looking after it? After all, we don’t want the few green spaces in Hanoi to look like landfill sites.
It was worth me looking into some other aspects of Vietnam’s cultural beliefs. My Vietnamese friends point out that ‘what comes from earth goes back to earth’, a belief that originates from an agricultural way of living, still resonates deep within Vietnamese culture today. This, as well the idea that picking up litter is a degrading practice, is also a widespread belief. Both of these factors can in some way account for lack of respect towards public spaces.
Of course, the best way to combat these cultural habits and taboos is to educate people on the importance of protecting our environment and keeping our shared living spaces clean. Educating at a young age is key and there is no better place to start than in schools. Schools have a great potential in playing an active role in educating students on such issues. For example, the university where I studied at, (National University of Singapore), had compulsory rules that all students clean up after themselves in cafeterias, common rooms and student bars. Even though there were cleaners whose job it was to do this, we were told not to expect them to clean up after us. We were even encouraged to call them ‘aunty’ and ‘uncle’.
This is great way to get students to respect the people and environment around them and can be effective in inspiring behavioural change among the new generation. Events like clean-up days can help make people more involved in their local community, and positively publicising these through media outlets, will help lift the cultural taboos of cleaning waste. Portraying the people who participate in these clean up days as ‘trend setters’ will only encourage others to become more involved in bringing about a positive change to the community.
What can we do?
Singapore is paving the way for sustainable cities and we could all learn from its commitment to achieving a cleaner and greener city. There are plenty of things that we can do to encourage people to become more conscious about their waste. We can use law enforcement officers to go under cover and monitor our public spaces. We can install a variety of bins, to ensure people get a choice of how they would like to disregard their trash. We can recruit litter ambassadors to portray cleaning up waste in a positive light, encouraging the younger generation to participate. We can schedule large clean-up days and invite our neighbours to join in. We can provide degradable bags and use signs and fines to enforce our message. ‘Clean up Hanoi’ is one that is gaining in popularity and works brilliantly in instilling caring, strong and united values among the local community. I myself, hope I can maintain this spirit once I return to my home in London, and do my bit to keep Britain tidy.
It is clear that the issue of littering is one that can be directly solved by our own individual actions, and without much effort. This problem is in our own hands: Let’s keep our world looking its best: Let’s be responsible for our waste.