Is Israel on the verge of a recycling revolution?

Well, maybe. But, as with most things, the public is going to have to do its part.

recycling 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
recycling 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For many Anglo olim, the state of recycling in Israel - or rather, the lack thereof - is often cause for concern and consternation. Harkening back to years spent in other countries, they wonder why more of our garbage isn't recycled. Why aren't there blue or yellow plastic bins everywhere for separating plastic, glass, metal and paper? "We're not there yet," Environmental Protection Ministry Recycling Coordinator Yoav Goel admitted to The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday. "In comparison to Europe, we're still lagging behind." Right now, less than 10% of garbage is recycled. Most of it goes to landfills, where it takes up lots of scarce land, produces 8% of Israel's greenhouse gases and potentially pollutes both ground and water. Now Israel may be on the verge of a recycling revolution. To understand why, a short history lesson is in order. According to Goel, before the ministry was established in 1990, there were very few organized landfills where garbage was dumped and dealt with properly. A lot of it was dumped haphazardly, resulting in potentially severe environmental damage. To correct that situation, the ministry initiated organized landfills - and a small fee per ton to use them. While the low cost did result in shifting dumping from nature to landfills, it also hampered recycling efforts because it was cheaper to dump garbage than to try to reuse it. As the 21st century approached, the ministry decided to move to Phase 2 - encouraging recycling by levying a higher tax per ton on using landfills. "[But] it took us close to 10 years to pass the landfill levy [heitel hatmana]," Goel said. That levy went into effect only in the latter part of 2007. Originally an additional NIS 10 surcharge per ton, it has risen to NIS 30 now and will rise again to NIS 50 per ton by 2011. Now the ministry can focus on investing in recycling infrastructure at the municipal level, Goel said. Efforts to encourage recycling largely target the local authorities, because they are the ones responsible for garbage collection. "We've allocated NIS 40 million for 2009 to encourage companies to develop the most sophisticated methods to recycle organic waste and to assist local authorities in preparing recycling infrastructure," Goel told the Post. Fittingly, the incentive funds from the ministry are to come in part from the landfill levy, according to Goel. According to the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), the levy is likely to cost local authorities millions in the coming years. However, at an IUED conference on recycling on Monday, several mayors expressed skepticism that Israel was on the verge of a revolution. Gil Levane, head of the Shoham Regional Council and chairman of the environment committee in the Union of Local Authorities in Israel (ULAI), cited a distinct lack of interest on the part of local authorities. "Just half of the local authorities requested assistance [last year], and most of that was for collection infrastructure," he said. "The landfill levy sours the principle of 'the polluter pays' by placing a tax on the local authority that they cannot collect from the residents. Therefore, the local authority doesn't have the funds to pay for collection and separation. It is not budgeted accordingly, and therefore there isn't any interest in promoting recycling in cities." Herzliya Mayor Yael German concurred: "To my dismay, I don't think we're on the verge of a recycling revolution. We lag far behind the rest of the world and we have a lot of problems." She added that "what is encouraging is that I see an increasing willingness and awareness among the public [to recycle] and a demand on the existing recycling centers." German noted that the city was about to issue a tender for garbage collection with the goal of having 25% of the city's refuse recycled by 2010. Bat Yam Mayor Shlomo Lehiani, meanwhile, opined that the country was at the beginning of a revolutionary process, but said it needed to be encouraged. He suggested education and incentives to individuals and municipalities. Goel's NIS 40m. of incentives, set to start this year, could perhaps help turn the corner. What needs to be done to maximize recycling in Israel? The goal is to separate a typical citizen's garbage into categories. Garbage is made up of about 40% organic waste and 20% packaging from products you bought at the supermarket. The other 40% is newspapers, mail, fast food containers and the like. According to a system suggested by IUED and other NGOs, in order to recycle, residents would have to separate their garbage into two types - "wet" and "dry." Organic waste: "Wet" garbage, or organic waste, includes all the peels, skins, rinds, ends, etc. of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Residents would put a separate trash can next to their regular can under the sink or in their kitchen and deposit all of the organic material there. In the future, the municipalities would provide another large trash receptacle at street level for organic waste, which they would then cart off to composters or anaerobic processors. At present, there are only one of each operational in Israel. However, once more are erected, the waste could be turned into high-quality fertilizer for agriculture. Farmers have expressed interest in utilizing such a resource should it become available. Another local option that does not rely on the municipality and that has become increasingly popular is the community compost. Residents bring their own organic waste to the community garden, where a compost is set up. The compost is then used as fertilizer for the garden. Several communities in Jerusalem have taken the initiative and created such composts. According to an IUED report issued ahead of the conference, such action by citizens could drastically reduce the amount of garbage that reaches landfills, without imposing on the municipalities the new costs an organic waste recycling infrastructure would incur. Dry waste - paper, bottles and everything else: Two items are already recycled in Israel in fairly significant quantities: paper and plastic bottles. Goel attributed the growth in those markets to its profit potential. Uzi Carmi, the general manager of Amnir Recycling, part of the Hadera Paper Group, told the Post that within the next year they would double the amount of paper they could recycle. "We're going to inaugurate a new paper-making machine toward the end of 2009, which will double our capacity," he said. The total paper recycling potential in Israel is about 1 million tons per year, according to Carmi. Right now, around 260,000 tons are actually recycled, or 26%. Carmi stressed that a big part of recycling paper was to get the public involved and aware. "Many people think the green collection bins on the street are just for newspapers, but they are not. From the packaging your tube of toothpaste comes in, to your cereal box, to your wife's perfume box - all of it is good recycling material," he said. "Gather up all of the paper in your house - notebooks, office paper, all of it - and bring it down to the collection bin on your street," he urged residents. Plastic bottles are also recycled through a national government corporation. There is also another important initiative in the works which would recycle the glass, metal, and plastic in your garbage - packaging recycling. In some European countries, 90% of packaging is recycled. Packaging includes wrappers, glass bottles, metal cans, plastic wrap, detergent bottles and anything else that enfolds commercial items. In Israel, there are currently two simultaneous initiatives. The first is an effort by MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) and others to pass a packaging law. A packaging bill reached the initial stages of legislation during the last Knesset session, but was not carried over. Paz-Pines promised during Monday's conference to sponsor a new version of the bill early in the new Knesset's term. The IUED has been heavily involved in helping to draft the packaging bill and has called for input from industry in setting its guidelines. But the Manufacturers Association, representing industry, is making its own effort to develop a package-recycling initiative, rather than have a packaging law imposed from above. Drawing on European models, the association has said that industry is prepared to take responsibility for its products from manufacture to disposal, and to cover the costs for the whole process as well. During Monday's conference, Roni Kovrovsky, representing the association, issued a strident call to environmentalists and others not to brand the companies "polluters." "We are ready to take responsibility for our products, but we don't want to be called polluters. Call it taking responsibility for our products through their entire cycle," Kovrovsky, who is also the president of the Central Bottling Company of Israel, implored the audience. "To tell industry [via a law], 'Do it this way or that way' is not the way," he added. "The 12-and-under generation knows exactly what it means to preserve the environment," and we know what we need to do to keep making money, he said.