Revealing Jerusalem’s dirty secrets

‘In Jerusalem’ joins a cleaning crew on its morning shift to learn more about how the sanitation department works.

Garbage men 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Garbage men 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
It’s 5:45 on a wet and windy Monday morning when I answer the phone to a loud baritone voice. “Are you ready?” the voice asks. After a moment’s hesitation – it’s still dark outside, after all – I say yes.
Outside my apartment, a large municipal van is waiting for me. The driver welcomes me with a hearty “Good morning” and invites me in.
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There are 12 districts from which teams of garbage men are dispatched two and sometimes three times a day. We head for one of them on Rehov Yossi Ben- Yoezer in the Katamonim. The sky is getting lighter, but the rain is getting heavier. When we arrive, about a dozen men in fluorescent yellow vests, most of the men smoking, stare at me with a mixture of cynicism and surprise.
Inside the building, the smell of smoke is stronger, now mixed with the aroma of strong black coffee.
Yair Durani, the director in charge of the area, is a tall, smiling man in his 40s. As he warmly welcomes me, I immediately recognize his deep baritone.
“I was told that a journalist was coming to see how we clean the city,” he says as he shakes my hand and invites me into his office. “For safety reasons you are not allowed to ride in the garbage truck; but I’ll take you in my van and we’ll follow the workers so you can see for yourself what we do and smell what my men smell every day,” he explains. Some of the men, intrigued, come closer to Durani’s office to catch a glimpse of “the journalist.”
“We have a guest here this morning, and I expect you all to be on your best behavior,” Durani tells them.
Now that the introductions are over, we begin our journey.
SO HOW do the city’s cleaning crews work, and why aren’t the results satisfactory? The city is divided into 12 sections, and each section has between one and three directors (one for each shift). There are 980 workers altogether, 40 percent of whom are residents of the Arab neighborhoods.
The workers are divided into roughly two types – those who work on the trucks and those who sweep the streets. Their day starts at 5:30 a.m. In each section, the number of trucks dispatched is based on the number of residents served. For example, in the South 1 section, which encompasses Baka, Arnona, Talpiot, East Talpiot and the Talpiot Industrial Zone, there are 47 workers and six trucks, which collect between 12 and 16 tons of garbage per day.
In reality, all 47 workers are rarely present on any one day. Durani is the supervisor of the whole southern area of the city. In his section, three trucks will start to collect the garbage from the bins of these neighborhoods from 6 a.m.
“We are not allowed to start before six in the morning because of the noise the trucks make,” he explains.
At 1 p.m., a second shift of three trucks will collect garbage in the Talpiot Industrial Zone. And at midnight, a smaller team – with one or two trucks – will go to the South 1 area again. In between, sweeping teams will clean the streets and parking lots and empty the public bins.
There are no emergency crews. Every morning, one of Durani’s first tasks (and that of all the other supervisors in the city) is to find replacements for absent workers.
Why has the Talpiot Industrial Zone become synonymous with dirt, I ask Durani.
“I was hoping you would ask,” he replies. “Let’s go there, and you will see for yourself.”
We reach Rehov Yad Harutzim less than 20 minutes after the garbage truck has collected all the garbage in the bins and on the sidewalks left from the previous night. Two restaurants are just opening and are getting ready for their morning customers. The restaurant workers sweep the dirt from the previous evening out onto the street. One of them throws a bucket of water on the dirt, creating a sludge pile on the sidewalk that has just been cleaned.
“It is still early, and the sweeping teams will probably do another roundup, but they have a very large section to cover. They can’t come back again and again to clean up after every shopkeeper who doesn’t bother putting his garbage into a bin but throws it onto the sidewalk. That’s why this area always looks dirty,” says Durani.
I ask him about fines and other ways to educate these people. Durani shakes his head and explains that he doesn’t have the authority.
“It’s the job of the municipal inspectors – I can’t interfere.”
We continue our tour by following the truck that is cleaning up Rehov Pierre Koenig. The wind blows papers and plastic bags around. Durani immediately phones the director of the area, instructing him to send in a sweeping crew.
“I would do that even if you were not here today,” he says. “But, of course, I can’t see every piece of paper flying in the wind. That’s why we’re happy to receive residents’ complaints on the 106 hot line, which I consider a valuable resource.”
The large truck stops near the corner of Pierre Koenig and Rivka streets. We step out of the van and join the crew. The smell is terrible, but the two men of the crew (besides the driver) are smiling.
They seem well equipped, with hats, gloves and yellow windbreakers.
A few weeks ago, a man was crushed to death while working with one of these trucks, which is why I wasn’t allowed to ride on one. Durani says the accident happened despite the security device that enables it to stop the revolving of the back of the truck by simply stepping on a pedal. I take a closer look and see a large black button, which enables direct contact with the driver in case something goes wrong.
As for the team, one takes the bins out of their cage; the other affixes them to the truck’s emptying device. Then the first man takes the bins back to their place. I note that the bins are not always replaced properly, so sometimes one has to create a path between the bins on a narrow sidewalk. The reason, again, is lack of time and staff.
From there, we ride to areas with more modern facilities. In the new neighborhood in Arnona, Durani shows me one of his dreams come true – clean, almost sterile, bin cages with locks, from which the men take off and put back the bins, leaving the street clean and welcoming as it should be.
In Har Homa, a new device has been introduced: huge stainlesssteel containers embedded in the ground, with a revolving device that is accessed after opening the lock. It is clean and aesthetic.
Durani says he is not completely satisfied because the revolving cage is too small. “As a result, people who have to throw in large objects, like they do during Pessah, such as furniture, cabinets and the like, can’t push them inside. So once again we have garbage scattered around or, at best, plastic garbage bags lying around. I don’t like it.”
A FEW hours after we end the tour, I see that the small bin beside a bus stop on Derech Hebron is completely full and garbage is scattered around. I ask the people waiting for the bus if this bothers them. Two middle-aged women say it disgusts them. I ask if they called the 106 hotline to complain, and they look at me with surprise.
“And what will happen if we call them? Will it help?” I rest my case.
At about 2 p.m. I return to the Talpiot Industrial Zone.
According to Durani’s schedule, a second contingent of trucks should have just finished working there. In the small parking lot on Rehov Yad Harutzim, next to the Sharon halls and the Ne’eman bakery, things look really ugly. Papers, plastic bags, dirty boxes and remains of food are strewn all around.
There is a closed cage, which the municipality requires the businesses to build, but some people seem too apathetic to use it properly.
“It is clear that a clean environment encourages residents to keep it clean, and the opposite too,” says Zion Sheetrit, head of the sanitation department, stressing that he begins his day with a tour of the entire city to assess the work. Sheetrit indeed checks every morning (at 6 a.m., he points out), but he doesn’t live in Jerusalem, a fact that all opposition members of the city council, including Mayor Nir Barkat before he was elected, have criticized.
“There are about 70 new modern sweeping machines waiting at the sanitation department’s central warehouse in Givat Shaul,” says city council member Meir Turgeman. “They can’t use them because there are not enough crews – not enough employees, and too many are on sick leave, have had accidents, have back problems or are too old to continue to get up so early.
Too many have been promoted to directors. There are a lot of reasons, but the bottom line is that we don’t have enough cleaning staff, and we see the results on the streets.”
Pre-Pessah Clean up
The municipality’s sanitation department has begun its annual pre-Pessah cleaning process. The operation, which lasts until the eve of the festival, includes additional shifts of cleaning crews every day for 10-days, be it garbagemen on their trucks or sweepers on the streets. Special teams will collect the large objects thrown out by residents towards the holiday, such as furniture, cabinets and boxes of clothes.
Special attention will be paid to such areas as Mahaneh Yehuda, the Bukharan market, the Mea She’arim market and their surrounding areas. Another spot that will be given special attention is the Old City, where tens of thousands of visitors are expected during the week of the holiday.
All the commercial centers and the malls in the city will be cleaned as well. To that end, the sanitation department has acquired special equipment to make sure the cleaning is done properly. Alleys, narrow streets and bus stops will be also given a thorough cleaning. In short, the entire city will be scrubbed clean from top to bottom.