Bagging the plastic

Knesset bills seeks to cut down on the 5 billion plastic bags Israelis consume every year.

plastic bags 88 224 (photo credit: Aimee Neistat)
plastic bags 88 224
(photo credit: Aimee Neistat)
People realize that a cute, fluffy dog can potentially turn and bite a chunk out of a child's hand. They are well aware that driving can lead to a car accident. And it doesn't take a fool to know that a teenager's online chat can really turn out to be a conversation with a pedophile. But it seems that the majority of Israelis have no idea that the innocent-looking plastic bags in which they carry home their supermarket shopping pose a serious danger to the environment. In Israel, plastic bags make up over one-quarter of the total volume of landfill, according to Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee member Dov Henin (Hadash). In light of this alarming statistic, Israel is starting to take action to reduce the excessive consumption of plastic bags, as many other countries have done over the past decade. The Knesset is the key player in Israel's initiatives to reduce plastic bag consumption, and the issue spans the political spectrum. Last month, Henin and fellow MK Estherina Tartman (Israel Beiteinu) introduced a bill that would require store owners to charge customers NIS 1 per bag. The fee is supposed to deter shoppers from using plastic bags and encourage people to seek more environmentally friendly alternatives, such as reusable or paper sacks. This bill is based on a successful precedent in Ireland, where the population of four million was consuming 1.5 billion plastic bags per year. In 2002, the Irish government introduced the "PlasTax," a charge of 15 Eurocents per bag. As a result, plastic bag consumption plummeted by 95 percent, according to 2005 figures. With its population of almost 6.5 million, Israel consumes five billion plastic bags per year - approximately 14 million bags per day. The Irish model is not the only one that has been proven to reduce plastic bag consumption. In 2003, the Australian Retailers Association adopted a Code of Practice for the Management of Plastic Carry Bags. The code encourages retailers to voluntarily reduce their distribution of lightweight plastic bags. Subsequently, supermarkets began selling and encouraging the use of reusable Green bags, while other retailers reverted to recyclable paper bags. Within two years, supermarkets were issuing 45% fewer plastic bags and 90% of small- to medium-sized retailers had reduced their bag distribution, as well. Other countries have employed a different approach. In 2003, South Africa banned the free distribution of plastic shopping bags thinner than 30 microns (30 millionths of a meter), as will China this year. Henin hopes his law, if passed, will encourage people to choose alternative means of carrying their groceries. The option he recommends is the Green bag. Compared to regular plastic shopping bags, the Green bag is more durable and can hold many more items. When asked why Israel is attempting to introduce a bag fee as opposed to other approaches, Henin answers, "We don't want to reinvent the wheel. [The Irish method] has really proven itself… The other option is to ban plastic bags altogether. We decided to begin with a less drastic [alternative]," Henin explains. He believes that by hitting consumers' wallets, a per-bag fee will prove the most effective in changing their behavior. "The most important thing to understand is we don't want people to pay more. The economic [means] is only the tool to make people move on to better solutions," Henin stresses. The bill is currently in its first reading in the Knesset. According to Henin, most MKs have expressed support for the legislation, though there has been "no real debate" as yet. He claims that if the law is passed, the fee will be introduced gradually in order to ensure that the public understands its intentions. But certain Sharon region community members are skeptical of the proposed law. Batya Malichi, a board member of the Eco-Judaism Project (EJP) - an initiative of the community-run synagogue Kehillat Hod ve-Hadar - doubts how enforceable the law will be. "Are [government agencies] going to go into every single shop in Israel and make sure people are charging [for each plastic bag]?" she questions. The EJP held a community awareness day at Kfar Saba's Kenyon Arim Mall on January 18. There, Malichi spoke to Sharon-area residents, who, she says, all knew about the bill and were doubtful it would pass. However, she adds, "People knew immediately that if [something] affects your pocketbook, then it changes behavior." In that sense, the law sounds like a great idea, she says. Kehillat Hod ve-Hadar is one of many community organizations in the Sharon region that are working to create awareness of the environmental damage caused by plastic bags. The EJP strives to achieve two goals: to increase awareness of the bags' impact on the environment, and to educate people about the connection between Judaism and environmental protection, which is seen as part of "Tikkun Olam." Events planned by the EJP include a lecture series on Tikkun Olam; study sessions on Jewish sources that talk about environmental protection; and a day when children can paint their own reusable bag. Malichi explains that if children paint their own bags, they will feel a personal commitment to using them. Yehuda Olander, manager of the Sharon District's Regional Division for the Quality of the Environment, claims that Israel is lagging behind much of the world when it comes to progress on environment preservation. Olander suggests the reason for this is because Israel's biggest problem is survival. "Survival here is not only talking about the environment, it's talking about security," Olander tells Metro. "Ten to 20 years ago, when the rest of the world began caring for the environment, Israel was focused on surviving as a country," he says. As a result, Israel is now behind. "But it works to Israel's advantage," Olander continues. Through other countries' successes and failures, Israel can learn how to be more environmentally responsible. "[Israelis] come back from Europe and [other parts of the world] and say 'Wow, look what they have done - how they recycle and how they avoid traveling too much in their cars.'" Olander asserts that since plastic bags are free, people happily take unlimited amounts - particularly at the supermarket. They use an abundance of plastic bags without any idea of the detriment their consumption causes to the environment. "What Israel needs is education and explanation," Olander says. He suggests two ways of teaching Israelis about the environment: via schools and via television campaigns. "Children have a big influence on their families," he says. "Simply by teaching children in school that plastic bags are bad for the environment, we can reach the wider public. Not only will children grow up with better environmental consciousness, but they will also go home to their parents and tell them not to take as many bags when they do the shopping." Olander compares the plastic bags problem to a difficulty Israel experienced in the 1960s. Picking wildflowers had become a much-loved pastime, but eventually caused widespread damage to the environment. To combat the problem, the Nature Reserves Authority, together with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, implemented the "Don't Pick Wildflowers" campaign that targeted schools and taught children not to pick protected flowers. "As a result," Olander says, "children came home from school and told their parents not to pick flowers, and thereby changed the habits of their families. The campaign was recognized as a huge success." According to Malichi, while people in Israel are starting to become aware of the damage caused by using plastic bags, they feel powerless to help. The EJP attempts to explain that every individual can have a positive effect. "If you use just one less bag, you're already helping the situation. If you reuse a plastic bag, you're already helping the situation. Anything that delays that bag from reaching the landfill is a plus," Malichi encourages. Malichi, Olander and Inbar-Eisinger (see box) are all optimistic about Israel's ability to achieve a shift in environmental consciousness. "I've been using these Green bags for a year now. In the beginning I was the only one. Now I see there are more people [using them] and people come up and ask me where I bought the bag. I think some people don't want to go out of their way to find a solution, but if we bring the solution closer to them [by having vendors sell reusable bags] they'll be willing to use it," Malichi said. According to Olander, environmental awareness in Israel is on the rise. "I think everyone in this country now understands that we are in a really dangerous [position]," he said. If the citizens learn that it is their responsibility to make the change regarding plastic bags - and not that of the government or any other organization - then the turnaround to a greener future stands a good chance of success.