Common sense key to war on litterbugs

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 July, 2005, 12:00am

Six months ago a woman was ordered to pay a $1,500 fine for littering after dropping her house key while pulling a purse from her pocket. Yesterday Lau Shiu-fun appeared in court and her case was swiftly dismissed. Common sense has prevailed.

The circumstances of the case almost defied belief. As the 55-year-old housewife said at the time: 'For God's sake, who would litter with their own home's door key?'

But the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, which issued Ms Lau with a summons for littering, contended that there was no evidence to support her version of events or cast doubt on the statements of its officers. They pushed ahead with the prosecution.

The matter was therefore left for the courts to deal with. The magistrate believed it was unlikely that an inspector could have seen Ms Lau holding the key in her hand before throwing it on the ground. Ms Lau was cleared.

The housewife - only 1.49 metres tall and weighing 43kg - can take some credit for standing her ground in the face of heavy-handed authority.

Through overzealous dedication to duty, if not an abuse of their powers, the department and its officers are left looking insensitive and lacking judgment. This is a pity because they have an important job to do that has wide public support. They must learn from this embarrassing episode.

It does not take the wind out of the sails of the government's campaign to stamp out litter as the ugly face of the street culture of our city. But it does not help. The campaign against litterbugs goes back to the 1950s and once relied more on encouraging public awareness and civic pride, rather than the kind of draconian enforcement regime adopted by Singapore, for example.

The softer approach did not work. The growing litter problem reflected no credit on Hong Kong or its citizens and in recent years the emphasis has rightly shifted to punishment of offenders. Due notice was given to the public that fines were to be increased and enforcement action toughened and hygiene inspectors were encouraged to take the war against street litter to the offenders.

It seems from Ms Lau's case that they are doing just that, although they went way over the top. With such vigilance, we might have expected that by now Hong Kong would have declared victory in the war on litterbugs.

Sadly it is far from over, although things have improved since the post-Sars crackdown. In just one example, litterbugs dropped 159 tonnes of rubbish during last year's Mid-Autumn Festival.

In a world swimming against a tide of waste and pollution, Hong Kong needs its watchdogs in the war on litter. But it is vital they exercise sensitivity and - above all - common sense when carrying out this important duty.