Are Israel’s plastic bottles being recycled?

The retirement of the plastic-bottle cages doesn’t mean plastic bottles aren’t being recycled.

August 9, 2019 07:02
Are Israel’s plastic bottles being recycled?

Are Israel’s plastic bottles being recycled?. (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)

Towering cages filled with empty plastic bottles have been a staple on Jerusalem’s streets for years, but recently, several have vanished.

The Jerusalem Municipality is now working with the company GreenNet, the largest waste-sorting plant in the Middle East and one of the largest in the world. Every day, 2,000 tons of waste are automatically sorted at GreenNet’s Atarot factory, where cutting-edge technology separates paper, metals, nonmetals, organic waste and five kinds of plastics without direct contact from sanitation workers.

With human-sorting at sidewalk receptacles rendered superfluous, the municipality has started to remove some of the plastic-bottle cages as well as some paper receptacles. More than 100 single-stream “recycling collectors” have been placed on Jerusalem’s streets thus far to replace the older recycling bins.

The retirement of the plastic-bottle cages doesn’t mean plastic bottles aren’t being recycled. GreenNet markets the recyclable materials to companies in Israel and around the world after sorting and treating them.

For plastic bottles, recycling operations take place exclusively outside the country, the Environmental Protection Ministry told The Jerusalem Post. Last February, Israel’s only plastic-bottle recycling factory, Aviv Recycling Industries, closed down, and all plastic recycling operations now export to different countries.

Aviv Recycling Industries ceased operations as a result of financial difficulties. The factory’s closure was unrelated to the municipality’s decision to remove the plastic-bottle cages from the streets, but environmentalist Amanda Lind believes that together the events represent an increasing shift toward an “out of sight, out of mind” culture of waste management in Israel, which makes the process easier but not necessarily more sustainable.

“Keeping Jerusalem clean is a whole cultural process, an educational process,” said Lind, the Community Gardens Coordinator for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

Two decades ago, Lind lobbied the government to install the plastic-bottle cages on the streets, hoping to increase recycling rates and citizens’ awareness of how much plastic they use.

Recently, she met with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, who has pledged to make Jerusalem’s streets cleaner through a number of initiatives, like collecting trash in religious neighborhoods immediately after Shabbat ends rather than the following morning.
Removing the plastic-bottle cages is another part of that mission.

The municipality wrote in a statement that the plastic-bottle cages are “a public hazard” and that removing them creates “a clearer passage for the city’s residents and guests” and improve[s] the city’s appearance.”

While Lind applauds the municipality’s efforts to create a cleaner city, the decision to remove the older recycling bins came as a slap in the face.

“I said to [Lion], ‘You can’t just take those receptacles away, because it’s part of the process of people understanding how much waste they make,’” Lind said.

Daniel Levy, an adviser to Lion, responded that Jerusalem has led Israel in recycling rates for the past four years, with 42% of trash being recycled in 2018.

“The Jerusalem Municipality pays special attention to solving recycling issues [and] sees recycling as a top priority,” he wrote in a statement.

But Jerusalem’s recycling rates are nonetheless below the national target of 50% by 2020.

With an eye toward that target, the Environmental Protection Ministry supports the establishment of sorting systems like the one at GreenNet.

“The sorting process at sorting stations reduces the amount of waste transferred to landfills,” the ministry wrote in a statement.
Israelis are more likely to recycle plastic bottles than other kinds of waste. According to a 2014 survey by the Central Bureau of Statistics, 67% of Israelis say they recycle plastic bottles. Among Jews living in Jerusalem, the recycling rate for plastic bottles was reportedly 72%.

“THE PUBLIC is willing, the public knows,” said Daphna Ben-Yaacov, who was Aviv Recycling Industries’ marketing director. Ben-Yaacov worries that with Aviv’s shuttering, Israel’s ability to recycle its waste will be harmed.

“The Israeli government needs to understand that Israel is like an island,” she said. “We don’t live very well with our neighboring countries. That’s why we need to deal with our own waste.”

Up until February of this year, Aviv Recycling Industries shouldered part of the responsibility of processing, washing and grinding Israel’s used beverage containers into plastic flakes, however, the company closed due to a lack of business – a strange phenomenon considering it was the only plastic bottle recycling plant in Israel. But bottle collection companies find it more profitable to export their wares overseas.

According to a statement by the Environmental Protection Ministry, the ministry tried to financially support Aviv by allocating money from its cleaning fund, which provides money for sanitation and waste disposal. They ran into obstacles along the way.

“The ministry, through the cleaning fund, sought to support the ongoing operation of Aviv Industries, but encountered opposition from the Treasury and local government representatives for such support,” the statement said.

Recycling abroad is financially practical for the plastic collecting companies because regulatory laws in Israel make the process more expensive than in countries like Turkey, Ben-Yaacov explained. In some European countries, she said, recycling is better subsidized, or the cost of electricity for companies may be lower.

However, Ben-Yaacov insisted that the government could have done more to protect the plastic processing plants in the country by enforcing one of its existing laws: the Packaging Waste Law. The law stipulates that companies that produce and import packaged products and service packaging may not export more than 20% of packaging waste of their products.

Ben-Yaacov said that if the government were to enforce the Packaging Waste Law, companies would have had no choice but to recycle their plastic bottles in Israel, perhaps saving Aviv from closure, and generating the demand for new recycling factories.
“Under the law, they [the government] have to make sure that most of the materials made in Israel are not exported, and they didn’t enforce it,” she said, “The result was that the collectors of plastic bottles from the curbside exported the bottles abroad to Europe, Turkey and other countries.”

If Israel continues to outsource its plastic-bottle recycling, it must depend on other countries to handle its waste in an environmentally-friendly way – a burden other countries don’t necessarily want.

It is not unheard of for countries to stop accepting waste imports. In 2018, China decided that it would start limiting its imports of waste, and its Ministry of Ecology and Environment aims to completely eliminate waste imports by 2020, according to Reuters.
Ultimately, Lind believes that the best solution to Israel’s waste-management problems is one that attacks the issue at its roots.
“We’re still dealing with environmental impact if we are shipping our plastic out,” she said. “We should be reducing our plastic. That’s really the issue,” she said.

Israel produces about 5.3 million tons of waste a year, with an annual growth in volume of 2%. Though nearly half of this waste is biodegradable, the vast majority of it winds up in landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Meanwhile, the unenforced Packaging Law states that landfilling of packaging waste will be prohibited by January 2020.
“We use materials in a first-world-way, with third-world infrastructure,” Lind said. “We consume huge amounts like the first world, but we don’t have the infrastructure to take care of what we use. So we need to reduce consumption.”

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