Why is Israel still drowning in garbage?

Environmental Affairs: Despite new recycling strategies, Israel remains a world leader in the production of waste per person.

 A WORKER gathers vegetable and fruit carton boxes at the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
A WORKER gathers vegetable and fruit carton boxes at the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)

With the global spotlight shining ever brighter on issues of climate change and sustainability, Israel has emerged as a notable player in the movement toward more eco-friendly practices

Among its key focus areas is recycling, as the country seeks to address mounting waste management challenges and pave the way for a greener future.

“The real question is not how much are Israelis recycling, but rather how much waste Israelis are producing,” Amiad Lapidot, head of solid waste at Adam Teva VeDin, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, recently told The Jerusalem Post.

“In Israel, the amount of garbage generated per person is among the highest in the world, and while in other countries this figure is decreasing, in Israel it is increasing,” he said. 

A record amount of waste per person

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, in 2019 the average Israeli generated 1.7 kg. of waste daily, or the equivalent of 51 kg. of waste per month and 612 kg. of waste per year – 30% more than European countries. The waste production growth in Israel stands at 1.8% per year. 

 RECYCLING BINS in Jerusalem. The aim is to collect 77% of the large bottles being sold in Israel by the year 2026/27. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post) RECYCLING BINS in Jerusalem. The aim is to collect 77% of the large bottles being sold in Israel by the year 2026/27. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

As such, Israel’s waste management crisis has reached a critical juncture, with the country’s landfills rapidly reaching capacity. In 2021, the Environmental Protection Ministry issued a stark warning, stating that the country was running out of space to accommodate the massive amounts of waste being generated.

With regard to single-use plastic, Lapidot said the situation is even worse, with “Israel ranked first in the world.”

He said that Israelis consume on average 21 gr. of single-use plastic per person, per day. This is in contrast to the US, ranked second, with an average of 8.5 gr. of single-use plastic per person, per day; and to the Europeans, who only use 4.5 gr. per person, per day.

“In the past 20 years, the use of single-use plastic has only increased. Everyone wants to talk about recycling, but it is more important not to produce the waste that you will need to recycle in the first place,” he said. 

He added that recycling is also not necessarily always environmentally friendly. 

He gave an example: A person throws a plastic bottle into a recycling bin in Haifa, in the North. A truck then picks up this bottle and drives it to a transfer station in the Center of the country. Then another truck picks up the bottle and brings it to a sorting station in the Negev, in the South. From there, the bottle is picked up by another truck, taken to its destination, again in the Center of the country.

“Think of how many trucks were used – the carbon footprint for this one bottle is huge,” he said. 

Yet, Lapidot said that the Deposit Law is slowly changing this equation. 

The Deposit Law

Indeed, one area that has received particular attention in recent years is the recycling of bottles. With millions of plastic bottles ending up in landfills every year, the government and private sector have been working to increase the collection and recycling of these materials.

The Deposit Law, established in 1999, imposed an obligation on beverage manufacturers and importers to collect and recycle empty drink containers from 100 mm. to 1.5 liters. 

In October 2020, the Environmental Protection Ministry decided to expand the law to apply a deposit obligation to large drink bottles of 1.5 liters to 5 liters as well. This new law went into effect in December 2021. 

Under this law, a deposit is added to the cost of beverage containers, such as plastic bottles and cans, at the point of sale. The deposit varies depending on the size of the container, ranging from NIS .30 to NIS 1.20. 

Consumers can then return these containers to designated collection points, such as recycling centers or automated machines, in exchange for a refund of the deposit. The containers are then collected, sorted and sent for recycling or reuse.

The aim of the law is both to provide a financial incentive for consumers to recycle their bottles, but also to hold manufacturers and importers accountable for the bottles they produce or sell, with the hope of increasing the recycling rate in Israel from its current rate of around 25% to 50% by 2030.

To assist the manufacturers and importers in fulfilling their obligations under the law – a massive undertaking – several corporations were established to help with the collection, sorting and recycling of the containers. 

“As part of the Deposit Law, manufacturers and importers are required to collect 77% of the bottles they sell and recycle 90% of those bottles,” Carmit Berdugo Maimon, vice-president of regulation and business development at Asofta Recycling Corporation Ltd., recently told the Post.

The Asofta Recycling Corporation Ltd. was established in 2001 and represents some 140 manufacturers and importers of beverage containers in Israel.

According to Berdugo Maimon, until recently there were recycling cages scattered in cities throughout the country, where people could recycle their large bottle containers.

“Most people would simply throw the bottles away,” she said. This would then begin the journey of large bottles to intermediary stations, followed by sorting stations, and then, what was salvageable would go onto a recycling station.

She explained that there is great importance in the quality of recycling as well as what is known as “separation at the source.”

“When you throw a bottle away in the trash, together with a dirty diaper, it can’t be reused as a food or beverage container; the quality of the recycling is very poor,” she said.

The expanded Deposit Law aims to address this issue, by offering a financial incentive for consumers to recycle the bottles in designated recycling drops, mainly in supermarket and retail chains, rather than throw them out with the trash. 

To that end, the Asofta Recycling Corporation has manufactured Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs), whereby consumers can return bottles automatically and receive their deposit. 

“The RVMs allow for separation at the source. The bottles are not mixed with other garbage, and so the quality of the recycling remains high,” Berdugo Maimon explained. “The machines also operate at a very high level. They can identify whether a bottle is aluminum, plastic or glass, sort them accordingly, and then cut the container up to reduce surface area.”

This “separation at the source” ensures the highest quality of materials that can then get recycled.

Additionally, the less surface area occupied by the bottles, the fewer number of trucks are needed to transport them to recycling stations, thereby reducing the carbon footprint.

In April 2022, one of Israel’s largest supermarket chains, Shufersal, announced it would be installing hundreds of RVMs, manufactured by Asofta, at their locations throughout the country. The aim now is to implement some 2,000 RVMs at supermarket chains and businesses across the country by the end of 2023 to meet the growing demand.

According to Berdugo Maimon, the Deposit Law is already yielding promising results not only in Israel but in other countries that have adopted similar legislation.

“In recent years, we are seeing a global trend toward deposit laws,” she said. “There are already some 50 countries in the world that have adopted this legislation. From 2023 to 2025, we can expect to see this legislation expanding to numerous countries throughout Europe.”

In fact, countries such as Greece, Turkey, Portugal and Austria all recently enacted such legislation, which is set to take effect in 2023; while countries such as France, Cyprus, Spain, Poland and the UK have all announced they intend to implement the legislation beginning in 2024/2025.

“This is the global trend. We can already see in countries that have implemented such laws, such as the Nordic countries and Germany, that the median recycling rate already in 2018 stood at around 90%,” she said. Lapidot concurred that the Deposit Law expansion is already having a positive impact. “The Deposit Law is a success story, and even with the problems, and there are problems, it is already having a clear impact,” he said. Today, following the new law, he said some 37% of bottles are collected through RVMs and retail chains, up from some 22% of bottles collected in the recycling containers.

While the numbers are not exact, he said, they are based on preliminary research, and are an indication of a positive trend. 

Additionally, Adam, Teva VeDin recently released a report detailing the impact of the Deposit Law on Israel’s beaches. According to the findings, since the adoption of the law, the organization found a 90% decrease in the number of large bottles found on beaches and a 46% decrease in the number of small bottles up to 1.5 liters.

“You ask how can this be? The answer for the decrease is the direct effect of the new law. Once you place a price tag on waste, it is the most effective form of education – education through the pocket,” he said. 

Yet, despite the seeming success of the Deposit Law, there are calls to cancel the legislation. “The big manufacturers and importers are paying for these bottles, and it is costing them around NIS 200 m. per year. So clearly they are not happy about it and are lobbying to cancel this – but it would be a big mistake,” he warned. 

Lapidot also referred to the taxes on single-use plastic and plastic bags as an example that these types of “financial fines” provide solutions. 

“Following this tax, we saw a 36% decrease in the sales of single-use plastic, which creates 5% of waste in Israeli homes,” he said. “We also found an 18% decrease of single-use plastic on beaches.”

Despite the success of this law in reducing plastic waste, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich recently announced the cancellation of taxes on single-use plastic, his first act upon taking up his ministerial position. 

“Environmental legislation works, don’t touch it. On the contrary, we should see if we can expand it,” Lapidot said. 

What is now needed, he added, is to “show the economic value of recycling in order to get the ball rolling.”

He said that waste costs local authorities approximately NIS 700 per ton, and today amounts to a total cost of roughly NIS 4.5 b. to dispose of. “If we can reduce this waste by 25%, we can reduce around 1 million tons of waste, saving municipalities a significant amount of money,” he said. 

A new waste management strategy

INDEED, THE Environmental Protection Ministry is acting to achieve these goals. In November 2020, the ministry released its new strategy for managing waste in Israel.

Ronit Avrahami, CPA, director of the extended producer responsibility (EPR) department at the Environmental Protection Ministry, and Livnat Goldberg, senior coordinator of the waste department at the Environmental Protection Ministry recently sat down with the Post to discuss the new strategy.

They explained that the main aim is to deal with the production of the waste in the first place, from reducing the amount of waste produced to separating it at the source, and then focusing on recycling and reuse. 

The plan seeks a transition by 2050 from Israel’s current, resource-consuming linear economy into a circular economy, which strives for minimum waste production and maximum efficiency in the use of resources. This would turn waste hazards into resources and reduce the negative environmental impacts throughout the waste treatment chain.

Additionally, the new strategy seeks to implement a transition of 80% landfilling to 20% landfilling by 2030.

The strategy aims to adopt policies similar to Western European policies: Separating at the source of the organic stream, recycling the “dry” stream, implementing economic incentives for waste reduction, and separation at-source through energy recovery (waste-to-energy) of residual waste only.

According to Goldberg, the ministry has allocated some NIS 1 b. to support infrastructure for waste sorting and treatment facilities, as well as the establishment of physical infrastructure for separation at-source of waste.

One particular emphasis is also on the management, separation and recycling of organic waste.

Additionally, the ministry has allocated some NIS 150 m. to establish and upgrade existing waste facilities, with a focus on separation at the source, in local municipalities throughout the country.

“Another avenue that the ministry is promoting is establishing standards for recycling, so that we can ensure quality raw materials that can act as a replacement for new materials,” Goldberg said. “The emphasis is on the quality of the recycling. We have already implemented two new standards for plastic polymers and are working to advance additional standards in recycling plastic and other materials.”

An additional pillar of the new strategy, according to Goldberg, involves optimizing the resources and waste produced by certain industries and implementing solutions to recycle this waste directly into other industries for use.

“Bottle-to-bottle recycling is one such example. We want to take this approach and expand it to other packaging and industries as well,” she said.

With regard to beverage containers, Goldberg said that the aim is to be able to collect 77% of the large bottles being sold in Israel by the year 2026/27.

In breaking down the data available, Avrahami said that of the approximately 6 b. tons of waste, only 3% is comprised of beverage containers.  This amounts to 2.1 b. bottles, of which 750 m. are large bottles of 1.5-5 liters, with a volume of over 1 b. liters.

“We still do not have the data available for 2022; we will only receive the reports from the manufacturers and producers in July as required by law. But in looking at the last quarter of 2021, we are already seeing an increase in the number of bottles collected and recycled,” she said.

Avrahami and Goldberg added that beverage containers, whether plastic, aluminum or glass, comprise a small but significant portion of the waste produced in Israel today. They emphasized the need to reduce all forms of waste.

“The ministry is implementing many pillars of its main strategy. But at the end of the day, the best way to deal with waste is simply prevention,” Avrahami said.