The Beauty of Recycled Garbage

A visit to Israel's leading recycling center and waste transfer station, now being transformed into a park

18hirya (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Article in Issue 18, December 24, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. click here to subscribe. Who would have thought that an old transistor radio, coupled with a pink toilet seat, hanging amidst a basketball, a thermos flask and a mannequin leg could be enchanting? The elaborate mobile dangles over a chair fashioned from a discarded shopping cart, glinting in the sun and padded with cast-off plastic bags. With lampshades made from wire baskets and seats made of crushed drink cans and old sacks, the Visitor Center at Hiriya, Israel's trash landmark, is determined to show off the aesthetic pleasures that recycled garbage can provide. The iconic dump is a 60 meter (197 ft.) high mound of garbage that sits conspicuously close to major highways, between Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv. Now undergoing a transformation, Hiriya is to become part of the new Ariel Sharon park that is being laid out around it. Israel's leading recycling center and waste transfer station lies at the foot of the mound. It recycles household, garden and construction waste and transfers non-recyclable waste to sanitary landfills in the Negev. Nearby stands an innovative, hands-on environmental education center for visitors. The Hiriya complex is a key part of the Ayalon Park Project - which includes the rehabilitation of the garbage dump, its recycling and visitor centers as well as the construction of the new Ariel Sharon Park. The project is slowly transforming the region between Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and Azur into a metropolitan wilderness, complete with flowing rivers and green park lands. When completed - estimated at 20 to 30 years from now - the park will be up to 2,000 acres, two and a half times the size of New York's Central Park. A model of the entire Ayalon Park project can be seen at the visitors center, run by the Dan Region Association of Towns, which is responsible for dealing with Hiriya and the waste transfer and recycle station. At the visitors center, which is located near the eastern slope of the mountain, everything from the reception desk to the seats to the old rearview mirrors in the bathroom is made from objects dumped by their owners. Once a compost facility, it now hosts thousands of children a month as part of the goal of making environmentalism a prominent facet of Israeli life. A visit to the Center is free - but you're expected to donate four used aluminum cans on your way in. The flat-topped mound that covers an area of almost 280 square miles is now covered in soil and plastic sheeting that hide the smell and mask the sight of the oozing, decaying waste underneath. Visitors will soon be able to ascend the waste in an environmentally friendly train-like vehicle - although driving over 50 years of garbage may make for a bumpy ride. The 360-degree view is worth the bumps, taking in the distant metropolis of Tel Aviv, its futuristic high-rises to the west, with the 2,000 acres of open land in the foreground and the Mediterranean ocean just visible in the distance. In the early 1950s, the site of al-Khaririya, an Arab village abandoned during Israel's War of Independence, just south of Ramat Gan, was selected as the Tel Aviv area garbage dump for use by the 13 surrounding municipalities. But suburbs sprung up around Tel Aviv, and as the population grew, so did the mountain of garbage. Pollution of underground water sources and of the nearby Ayalon and Shapirim rivers, a literal avalanche of rubbish caused by the collapse of one of the slopes of the hill and the overwhelming odor all became increasingly problematic. And the expansion of Lydda (later Ben-Gurion) Airport, only 4.5 km (2.7 miles) away, turned Hiriya into Israel's unofficial welcome mat. But it was the birds who were responsible for finally closing the site. More migrating birds visit Israel annually than anywhere else in the world. During the winter months hundreds of thousands of birds - white storks, black kites, herons, hooded crows and gulls - would stop to feast on Israel's waste. The dump is directly in line with Ben-Gurion airport's main runway, which in 1997 served 53,044 takeoffs and landings. On several occasions, birds collided with planes or were sucked into their engines and the fear that human lives were in danger led the Environment Ministry and the Interior Ministry to close the site to dumping in 1998. By then, the garbage had amassed to 25 million cubic tons. Though the dump was closed, waste continued to build, so the Dan Region Association of Towns Sanitation and Waste Disposal established the waste transfer and recycle center at the eastern side of the hill. The center sorts the waste, recycles what it can, extracting any organic waste to be turned into sewage and then forwards the rest of the waste to landfills in the south. [See box below.] But the government agencies had not worked out what to do with the dump and the site was left to fester. About a year after the closure, Martin Weyl, a former director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem as well as the director of the Beracha Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports socially progressive projects in Israel and throughout the world, initiated a series of projects to transform the site and its environs. Weyl organized an exhibition at the Israel Museum that featured artists' and architects' ideas for the site. He also tried to interest prominent political and social figures and the media. When the district planner for Tel Aviv asked Weyl if the surrounding flat lands, still zoned for agriculture, could be incorporated in the project, Weyl organized a second "Hiriya at the Museum" competitive exhibition in 2005. Artists and architects from several different countries entered pieces into the exhibit. The idea of transforming the area into a 2,000 acre urban wilderness centered around the rehabilitated mound presented by a German professor of landscape architecture, Peter Latz, won the competition. It is his plan that is now being implemented. But the decision to use this huge tract of highly valuable real estate for this purpose angered the powerful business interests that had intended to make a killing by developing it as residential neighborhoods. Particularly incensed was the Hazera seed company, which had been leasing most of the land from the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) and growing crops there; Hazera had an agreement that would have allowed it to construct residential units on some 250 acres. It argued that at least 10,000 housing units worth billions of dollars could be built there, generating enormous tax revenue for the surrounding municipalities and profits for the companies involved. The Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED, known in Hebrew as " Adam Teva V'Din") petitioned the High Court of Justice asking that the land remain free from construction in November 2004. Eventually, the ILA, succumbing to pressure from IUED and other environmental lobbies, abrogated its agreement with Hazera. The Ayalon Park project is one in a series of recent cases where environmentalism has triumphed. Danny Sternberg, the CEO of the Dan Region Association of Towns Sanitation and Waste Disposal Operation, which ran the dump and is now overseeing the Ayalon Park project, attributes these environmental successes to growing public awareness, a shift in the way Israelis think about their country and the rising social value of open green spaces. But Michelle Levine, a spokesperson for the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI), says that Hiriya is a "special case" and laments what she perceives as the "overall weak state of the environmental lobby." The park would not have been approved without the direct involvement of the man for whom it will be named - former prime minister Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma for nearly two years after suffering a stroke. According to Levine, recent significant environmental victories - such as last year's rejection of a plan for massive development in the hills west of Jerusalem and Bat Galim in Haifa, both of which would have heavily compromised open land space - stem less from social awareness and more from the way in which professional environmentalists do things. "They are offering more sustainable outcomes for every major issue" and fighting the trend to award public land to developers, she explains. Alon Tal, who founded the IUED in 1990 and is currently a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, agrees with both these points. In his book "Pollution in a Promised Land" (University of California Press, 2002), he describes the effect of the NIMBY (an acronym for "Not in My Back Yard") attitude in Israel. While some view it as a selfish mindset that prompts citizens to care only about what affects them directly, Tal asserts that the same citizens who refuse to drink polluted water, breathe toxic air or give up their open spaces are the central force for a growing mass environmental movement in Israel. Tal explains that Israel is very centered around the concept of community; since individuals are highly identified with their communities, they regard communal "backyard" problems as personal vested interests. This insures that, rather than being overwhelmed by enormous "national" problems, individuals and groups are able to bring about change at local and regional levels. Israel's ecological movement, Tal writes, "understands intuitively that only a sense of place, community, continuity and responsibility can return the harmony between humans and their environment." Yet at the same time, Tal tells The Report that Israel is far behind the rest of the world in environmental awareness and implementation of sustainable solutions. Furthermore, with regard to the plan at Hiriya, he notes that while the open spaces will be wonderful, he also worries that the daily transfer of new non-recyclable waste from Hiriya to sanitary landfills near Beersheba will simply move the problem to an area that is geographically peripheral and so politically weaker, rather than solve it. The Ariel Sharon Park was officially dedicated on October 28, 2007. Sharon approved the planning for the park as one of his last official acts before he lapsed into the coma, says Sternberg of the Dan Towns Association. At the dedication, Sharon's son, Omri spoke of the great personal importance the land held for his father, who, as a young man, had fought in this region in the 1948 War of Independence. Construction is well under way. Bicycle paths run near the base of the garbage hill and through much of the open flat lands. When completed, the park will include two natural rivers that will be diverted from the base of the mountain to further inside the park, a lake, and picnic spots. The outskirts of the park will be used for sporting and recreational activities, while the inner depths will be a quiet, tranquil place "for people to come and absorb the wonders of nature." The Dan Association of Towns received a $5 million grant from the Beracha foundation for the planning stages and the government has promised to kick in a similar amount over the next 5 years. Sternberg, however, is concerned that this will not be enough, and tells The Report that there is "no point creating something so extraordinary if it can't be maintained." Maintenance costs, he estimates, will not be covered by what the government is currently offering. Sternberg established an independent non-profit organization, "The Friends of the Ayalon Park," in 2005, to raise funds. The Hiriya mound was kept, Sternberg maintains, " because it can't be moved. The removal of the waste would cost huge amounts of money, for which there is no funding," and would release noxious gasses into the air. But the ultimate reason, he says, is "the simple fact is that there is nowhere else to put the waste." Anyway, he says, keeping the mound has its advantages: Nowhere else in the flat area around Tel Aviv is there a hill that affords the public so spectacular a view as the one from the top of Hiriya. Standing beside his car on top of the 450,000 square meters of garbage that is oozing beneath the coating under his feet, Sternberg says that the project is positive both environmentally and socially. "The different aspects of our lives that this project brings together make it fascinating… Our different basic habits, our garbage, what we do in our free time and education.... People connect around these things." Israel's former attitude towards waste and recycling is what resulted in a pile up of 50 years' worth of garbage, not only an eyesore but a serious threat to a geographically very small environment. "Hiriya is an icon; we need to save it as a reminder of what happened and learn from our mistakes," Sternberg concludes. SIDEBAR High-Tech Waste Treatment The Hiriya site boasts some of the world's most innovative waste treatment technologies. The waste transfer system, the largest in the Middle East, and the recycling center situated at the base of the mound are designed to deal with the continuous influx of waste from a quarter of Israel's population. Some 800 trucks drive through the site daily, dropping off garbage from the Dan area and beyond to be sorted into its various categories and then taking the sorted non-recyclable waste to sanitary landfills in the Negev. (These are intended to be insulated landfills that supposedly will not affect the surrounding environment.) Household garbage makes up the most common form of waste. The garbage is dumped in a small holding area surrounded by fences; a short flight of stairs leads to a viewing balcony where the visitor can watch the oddly gripping sorting process in all its grotesque glory. Futuristic, humanoid-looking machines with skeletal silver arms - looking like instruments of torture in a horror flick - feed the garbage into a multi-ringed orifice that twists and turns like the stomach of a mechanical whale. Once digested, the garbage is plunged into a pool of water and divided by weight according to the laws of gravity. Thick plastics are slashed apart by mechanical knives; metals are wrenched apart with magnets; strong air currents blow plastic bags into a separate chamber. The technology used at the plant was developed by Arrow Ecology Ltd., an Israeli company established to deal with Israel's increasing need to separate waste. The technology used was developed in Israel but is currently being marketed abroad. The recycling plant and waste transfer system are entirely run by the Dan Region Association of towns and is completely non-profit. The organic material harvested from these products is then pumped into hydraulic crushers to make either fertilizer, or is harvested in gas form, which can be then used for electricity or as a proponent for fuel. Green waste, like bushes, grass and other natural garden waste is turned into mulch, trees that come in are turned into furniture, all marked with the "Made at Hiriya" logo, to be used around the site and within the park. Excess materials from construction sites are also recycled: One example is the new fence at the base of Hiriya separating the different recycling stations, which is made entirely from recycled construction waste. Article in Issue 18, December 24, 2007 of The Jerusalem Report. click here to subscribe.