Oleh: UK recycling doesn't stand a chance in Israel

Shebson, who represents a British firm that provides waste management services, says that Israeli bureaucrats are closed to ideas on how to save environment.

judea trash 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
judea trash 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jack Shebson, made aliya from Great Britain recently to use a good environmental idea, and his experience in finance, to improve the environment in a way that makes economic sense. However, his efforts to prod Israel to shift its environmental policy quickly showed him, he said, that even economic realities were not enough to persuade the country's bureaucrats to make the decisions required to save the country's environment. Shebson worked for years for Israeli banks in Britain. He is semi-retired now, living in Efrat, but decided that his financial know-how could be useful in promoting a project he believes could seriously change the way trash is dealt with in this country. Shebson represents a British firm called Ethos that provides waste management services. Ethos recently won a contract to manage the trash disposal at Heathrow airport's new Terminal 5. Ethos takes raw trash and recycles about 85 percent of it, whether through traditional recycling methods, composting (making fertilizer from organic waste) or pyrolysis, a method for decomposing waste by heating it to very high temperatures. That compares to Israel's recycling rate of 22%, according to an Environmental Protection Ministry estimate that many involved say is itself merely wishful thinking. Amir Kaplan of the Jerusalem Municipality showed The Jerusalem Post statistics that indicate the capital, for instance, recycled 3% of its annual 357,000 tons of waste. Shebson said Ethos was a viable venture in the UK because Britain charged high fees for the use of landfills, making recycling a much more attractive option. The UK and other European countries use the fees to provide an incentive to businesses to recycle. Israel has tried to follow the European model of a landfill levy, but the hoped-for result of more recycling is still far from realized. Shepson said the fees here for dumping are "just tinkering" when compared to European laws. And there may be other reasons why economic forces have failed to move recycling to the fore - such as the shortsighted approach of Israeli politicians. In July, the Knesset approved a law imposing a levy on all trash dumped in municipal landfills. For household waste, the largest category, the levy started at NIS 10 per ton, rising by NIS 10 per year to NIS 50 in 2011. The idea was to force municipalities, which bear the cost of waste disposal, to find alternatives to the nation's limited supply of landfills. These options include recycling, incineration, and even gasification, which is the transformation of trash into gas for use as an alternative fuel. Green organizations lauded the law, which would theoretically make municipalities more aware of the real costs of landfills, costs which are not immediately apparent in the authorities's bottom line. These costs are the "externalities" of waste management, where the market price does not reflect the cost to other stakeholders - everything from the destruction of nature reserves, to the impact on property values near the dumps, to the leeching of hazardous chemicals into water sources. The law lets each municipality decide whether to invest in recycling to reduce its now higher disposal costs, with the income from the levy available to supplement the cities' investment. Tzipi Iser-Itzik of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva V'Din) said the legislation had already led some local authorities to look into environmentally-friendly alternatives. But Shebson said his experience showed the government was not positioned to take advantage of the economically viable technologies that were currently available. "I spoke with people at the Ministry for Environmental Protection, and everyone there was very nice, but when I asked them how long it would take before a plant [to centralize sorting and recycling of trash] would become operational, if we started today, they said five years. That's just absurd," he said. Jerusalem furnishes a good example of the dilemma. The capital has one of the lowest dumping costs in Israel; the 1,100 tons of waste that arrive daily at the Abu Dis dump cost the city NIS 40 per ton, plus another NIS 20 levy. (Transportation costs of approximately NIS 330 per ton are excluded from these figures.) The extremely low cost is one reason Jerusalem has yet to find a serious alternative to the Abu Dis dump. A proposed way station that would sort and recycle some of that waste for NIS 100 per ton will only approach economic viability when the levy reaches NIS 50 in 2011, bringing Jerusalem's total cost per ton to approximately NIS 90. But the city's planning does not seem to take into account the financial pitfalls waiting just several years ahead, when city planners say the Abu Dis site will reach full capacity. An alternative site planned for the Mishor Adumim industrial zone, in the eastern part of Ma'aleh Adumim, could alleviate the crisis, but there are political issues, as the Attorney-General's Office has forbidden "disproportionate" dumping beyond the Green Line. A study undertaken by the Jerusalem Municipality in 2005 indicated that unless the Mishor Adumim site was approved as "proportional," the city would be forced to incur significant expenses to transport trash to, for example, a possible site in the Negev, 181 kilometers from Jerusalem. The report concluded that various alternative sites, each with their own issues, would carry price tags anywhere from NIS 85 to NIS 151 per ton. In theory, the combination of rising landfill costs, the levy, and new technologies making recycling more economically viable should bring Jerusalem to the fore of recycling culture in Israel. But the reality is far from reflecting this. Jerusalem is pursuing various recycling ideas, including widespread use of bins to collect plastics and paper, and electronics and battery recycling centers. But Kaplan is quick to admit that these programs are far from enough to make a dent in the city's trash problem. For example, based on volume estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency, a standard 3,400 liter neighborhood recycling cage used for large plastic bottles would contain 73 kilograms of plastic when filled, and Jerusalem's 550 such cages would therefore add up to only a 20 ton saving for the city, while the city dumps more than 1,100 tons each day. In cash terms, the 1,804,000 1.5 liter bottles collected in the first half of 2005 would only save the city, even at the higher 2011 rates, NIS 4,900 in dumping fees, putting the value per bottle (excluding special transportation fees) at nearly 0.3 agorot. That makes a very hard case to sell to the public to make their way to the recycling receptacles. Dr. Shachar Dolev, of Tel Aviv's Heschel Institute, said the theory of environmental economics was that the public would make the right environmental decisions if it was made aware of the true price of actions such as dumping trash. Dolev pointed out, though, that the values assigned to various environmental impacts were based on very tenuous estimates regarding such factors as quality of life and the value of nature. "To make an estimate like that, you have to assign a value to, on the one hand, open spaces and the cost of the smell of a landfill, and on the other hand, the cost to the public of going out of their way to recycle. "There is really no justifiable way to make those kind of estimates," he said. But Shebson said the government must put a price tag on dumping, and make it as high as in the UK and the Netherlands. Otherwise, he warned, the good ideas being put forward and refined overseas would never make their way here.