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The amount of refuse created in Israel is growing from year to year, but increasingly there are indications that there are insufficient areas in which to bury it, a phenomenon which can only get worse in the next few years. In order to deal with the problem, the Environmental Protection Ministry has created a number of steps, including a first-ever plan to operate facilities for the incineration of urban refuse.

The plan has given rise to concern among environmental organizations which claim that facilities for burning refuse will create air pollution and the emission of hothouse gases. They are also likely to take the place of recycling plants, since their operation requires constant supplies of waste in large quantities.

The overall objective of the ministry is to reach a situation, by the end of the next decade, in which less than half the refuse in Israel is transferred to garbage dumps. The remainder is expected to go to sorting and recycling facilities, will be used in the production of energy after various treatments or will go to incineration facilities where, too, it will be possible to produce energy. At present some 15 to 20 percent of the four million tons of refuse that is produced every year in Israel are recycled, while the remainder is buried in dumps.

Several steps have been taken in recent years to promote this plan. The first was the gradual closing of old dumps and the opening of new sites where the cost of dumping refuse is higher. Two years ago, a fee for dumping garbage was imposed which has made this kind of treatment even more expensive and increased the feasibility of developing additional methods for dealing with refuse. The money that will be collected through fees, sums which will reach hundreds of millions of shekels, will be invested in systems such as recycling plants. Another step is the introduction of changes in the framework of the national outline plan for refuse that will make it possible to turn garbage dumps into what the ministry defines as "treatment sites." At these sites it will be possible, among other things, to operate facilities for processing refuse for recycling, producing agricultural fertilizer (compost) and thermal treatment, that is, the burning of refuse by various methods.

"The aim is to create end solutions for the refuse," says Avri Lahman of the ministry's solid waste department. "It is convenient to concentrate these activities at an existing garbage dump because that is where the refuse goes and it is possible to sort it for different needs. We do not rule out the possibility of setting up various facilities, also in industrial areas."

The environmental organizations view favorably the expanding of the facilities for recycling and the creation of compost, but they are extremely suspicious of the facilities for burning refuse. In the past, there were several initiatives for setting up facilities of this sort, among others in the Haifa and Yavne areas, and they met with vehement public opposition because of the fear of toxic air pollution from the facilities. Now it appears that the ministry is trying to circumvent this problem by exploiting an area that is already earmarked for the treatment of refuse.

"The approach of many people to the facilities for thermal treatment is that they can be good so long as they are not next to their house," says Lahman. "In our opinion, the plan makes it possible to be too flexible with regard to the possibilities it presents for setting up incinerating facilities," says Itamar Ben-David, a planner for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. "It is possible to approve the facilities without the public's intervention and without [the public] having the ability to submit objections. The plan states that the possibility of informing the public will be examined - why should it be examined rather than them being obliged to give the information?"

The environmental organizations also have voiced considerable criticism with regard to the use of incinerators. Ben-David sent a letter about this matter to the planning authorities in the Interior Ministry. He claimed that thermal treatment was at the bottom of the list of the means for treating refuse, after reduction at the source (meaning the creation of less garbage by households through the use of means such as reusable garbage bags) and re-use and recycling.

"The incineration of garbage does not encourage the reduction of the production of garbage," Ben-David wrote. "The opposite is true because once it has been decided to set up a facility of this kind, local authorities will be obligated to the entrepreneur and will have to continue feeding the facility with refuse. On the other hand, a reduction at the source or recycling are in keeping with the policy of sustainable development, the significance of which is savings of resources and energy."

Facilities for thermal treatment, says Gilad Ostrovsky of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (Adam Teva Ve'Din) give off gases that cause global warming. "These are also extremely expensive facilities and we don't see the justification in giving them easier terms in the planning processes when it is possible to achieve good results with treating refuse by other methods."

Lahman makes it clear that the environmental protection ministry is not planning to encourage the establishment of thermal treatment facilities at every site. "We are talking, at the most, about a handful of facilities and their establishment is also conditional on their economic viability since they are very expensive," he says. "They will not be operated at the expense of recycling and the operation will be part of an integrated treatment that also includes the reduction in the amount of refuse created at the source and of course recycling, and this will also serve to produce energy. As for informing the public, I certainly think that there must be a process of that kind at every site in which a thermal facility is planned."

The environmental protection ministry and the finance ministry are currently looking into the economic feasibility of operating thermal facilities. But at the same time the moves are continuing for furthering the outline plan that will make it possible to set them up. According to one of the tests done on behalf of the environmental protection ministry by the Pareto Engineering company, the incineration of refuse is the most expensive of all treatments. The preferable alternative is the separation of refuse by households into wet garbage (particularly food remnants) and dry (plastic, paper and cardboard) and its transfer to recycling or the creation of compost.

Today there are already a number of interesting attempts in Israel to treat refuse, including the operation of a unique facility at the Hiriya site in which refuse undergoes a process of being broken down using bacteria. During the process, methane gas is created and this can be used in producing energy. At a number of garbage sites facilities are being created for the shredding and recycling of tires. In addition, they have begun operations for the crushing and recycling of construction refuse at several sites.

There are still professionals in various parts of the world today who claim that the use of various technologies for thermal treatment should be expanded. One of these is the union of British engineers, which considers these technologies to be the correct and safe methods from the environmental point of view.

The organization makes a point of stating that a distinction has to be made between facilities in which refuse is simply burned in order to dispose of it and those in which the heat produced in the process of thermal treatment is utilized for the production of energy. Its members recently published a comprehensive report in which they claimed that refuse should be considered a resource for the production of energy for providing electricity or heat. The thermal facilities should be considered some kind of power station, the report said.

What has complicated the issue of treating refuse in recent months has been the impact of the world financial crisis on the recycling industry. The crisis is a by-product of the ever worsening economic recession which has caused a sharp drop in the demand for products produced from paper, cardboard and plastic that have been sent for recycling.

In a number of countries such as Britain, huge piles of paper are piling up and waiting for recycling because of the decreasing demand in the market, particularly in China. That country is also one of the destinations of exports from Israel for recycled materials. According to a source in the Israeli recycling industry, the crisis is already being felt in Israel as well, as a result of the drop in demand from China.

"The price of iron has plummeted," Moti Danan, one of the directors of of the Dudaim garbage dump in the Negev said recently. "Suddenly we noticed that people are no longer collecting bits of metal and iron in order to send them for recycling." Lahman says: "Here in Israel recycling plants have not been set up in the past few years and a large number of the existing plants are still marketing to the local market and that's the reason why they have not collapsed. But we are certainly worried about the situation and we are holding a number of meetings about the subject. We will have to plan our steps carefully so that we will not invest money in assisting recycling plants that perhaps will not be able to keep on operating."