Talking rubbish...

There are four weeks to go before the general elections. Are any of the parties relating to our garbage crisis or to its possible solutions?

Trash piles up during Local Authorities strike 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Trash piles up during Local Authorities strike 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The ideology of garbage teaches us to respect the four “R’s” – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and above all – Rethink.
In a consumer society, where the economy can only grow if we consume more, both reduction in consumption and reuse of products and materials are perceived as enemies of economic prosperity. Yet in a world of climate change and fear of a global overdraft as a result of excessive use of water and other resources essential to life, what we need in fact is to consume less, by avoiding excessive spending and unnecessary waste.
This inherent contradiction exposes one of the basic flaws of modern economic policy.
Advanced economic thinking leads us in a new direction, which is surely appropriate as we are supposed to be “Rethinking.”
Can we imagine a world in which the reduction of our negative footprint went hand in hand with economic prosperity? I would posit that if we can’t, we are in serious trouble.
Incidentally, the fact that we face this garbage crisis along with the rest of the world does not mean that we in Israel can disregard the conflict inherent in our economic thinking.
In Israel we tend to focus only on our special challenges, which usually take the form of security threats of immense proportions. However, is it heretical to suggest that sound, smart growth need not wait for that longed-for peace agreement, while an economy that promotes social and environmental justice might just bring us all a little closer to the elusive goal of peace? Indeed, garbage cannot be avoided.
As we consume, we litter our public domain, which is shameful in itself, but much worse than that, Israel has for decades dumped garbage at a series of badly managed sites that can no longer be out of mind, even if they are out of sight.
Israel holds a world record for sewage treatment, reclaiming an impressive 80 percent for agriculture.
However, where garbage is concerned, until recently landfills were the only solution offered. Being a small country, with limited land resources and acute water shortage, one might suppose that we would think twice before using up precious land reserves for dumping, and perhaps worry about the gradual poisoning of our aquifers as a result of polluted seepage from the many dumping sites around the country.
As recently as 1997, the official policy of the Environmental Protection Ministry was that recycling couldn’t work here because “it doesn’t suit the Israeli mentality.”
I cannot help wondering why the Jews, who traditionally separate meat products from milk, and leavened from unleavened (on Passover), should be categorized as unable to separate organic waste from plastic and paper.
In fact, several years have passed since we were required by law to reach a level of 25% recycling, and it is interesting to recall how and when that goal was set, in order to understand why no city in Israel has achieved it, and dumping continues.
When the Environmental Protection Ministry was established, (in the 1980s, not out of respect for the environment but because a complex government coalition needed to provide an additional portfolio), one of the first initiatives of the fledgling ministry was the Recycling Law. Did any of you know it existed? If you didn’t, it is because for many years it was not enforceable. This was because of a laconic clause that placed the burden of recycling on local governments, but let them off the hook if they could prove that it was beyond their economic capacity.
This has changed only in the past decade or so, after the late Rafael Eitan, in his term as environmental protection minister, announced his intention of closing down the Heria dump and turning it into a park. The park offers a wonderful recycling experience, and heralds in a new age of garbage ideology.
Under our municipal administration in Jerusalem, we have put an end to the 30-odd years of dragging our feet and continuing to dump our waste near Abu Dis, at a badly managed site that has become a methane nightmare. By April 2013, Jerusalem will have totally ceased dumping garbage in Abu Dis, and rehabilitation of the site will commence.
This brave undertaking on the part of the Jerusalem Municipality entails enormous cost, about a hundred million shekels a year, since our garbage has to be transported far south, and we have to cover the dumping fee that is constantly being raised by the Environmental Protection Ministry.
According to the regulations fixed by the ministry, the dumping fee per ton of garbage is the price we pay for not recycling our solid waste. The regulations also insist that we, the municipality, can apply to the ministry for funds to achieve the recycling goals we set.
Our dumping fee helps build a fund that is intended to assist local government to achieve its recycling goals.
However, the word “intended” is key here, since effectively the mechanism for funding implementation of local recycling policy is fraught with logistic and bureaucratic obstacles.
Recycling in Jerusalem has increased during our term of office from 2% to 12%, and will continue to rise steadily over the next few years. However, we have achieved this improvement in spite of, and not as a result of, the ministry’s intention to help.
Indeed, instead of working together with municipal professionals to create a recycling plan suited to the city’s needs, and budgeted at no more than the total dumping fees paid, the ministry insists on putting together complex calls for proposals with requirements that practically no one can meet, and then takes delight in informing us that we have missed the deadline, lack the right signatures, or have made a mistake in our calculations.
The worst of it is that even if the politicians and professionals in the municipality join forces and succeed in winning a call for proposals, the likelihood that it will be relevant to their case is small.
There are four weeks to go before the general elections. Are any of the parties relating to our garbage crisis or to its possible solutions? Do any of them seek to facilitate meaningful dialogue between national and local government, which is the only way to achieve a sustainable economy? And finally, if we are to separate our garbage at source, and identify increased recycling quotas as a national goal, what incentives are the parties in the next Knesset offering to encourage us to achieve the goal? Unless we can find a way both to reward responsible citizens who recycle and separate out their waste, and also to punish the ones who don’t, there is no way we can achieve the goal of reducing dumping in landfills that use up more and more of our precious open space.
Once again, national government has passed on the responsibility to local authorities without providing the tools to enable us to succeed.
The author is the deputy mayor of Jerusalem.