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Israel's towns and cities are finally starting to take a serious interest in environmental issues, particularly the wealthier communities, according to a new index.

Published yesterday by the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership and the umbrella organization for environmental groups, the study outlines 10 activities indicating environmental awareness - including water conservation, recycling, caring for open spaces and environmental education. Each activity was given a grade based on the relevant steps the city or town had taken to make improvements in that category.

The cities found to be the most environmentally conscious were Tel Aviv, Modi'in and Kfar Sava, all considered economically well off.

According to the index, Kfar Sava and Modi'in are front-runners in recycling, as both cities have fully implemented the separation at home of wet and dry waste into individual bins, to be sent for recycling.

By contrast, no such programs exist in Eilat, Rishon Letzion or Rehovot, while in Tel Aviv the program has only recently been launched.

According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, dozens of local authorities have submitted requests for funding to move recycling programs forward. Such requests from municipalities have reached a total of NIS 400 million, but the ministry only has NIS 200 million to allocate to these programs.

Tel Aviv received the index's highest score for bike paths and light rail systems, due both to existing bike paths and those in the planning stages. The report also notes that Jerusalem's light rail is on the verge of implementation, as is Haifa's Metronit bus rapid transit system.

Still, the overall picture drawn by the study is that no Israeli city has public transportation systems or bike paths comparable to those in European cities.

The most surprising figure involves municipal water use for landscaping, as well as for public and educational complexes and sports facilities. It turns out that local authorities' reputation for being wasteful when it comes to water is largely undeserved.

Most cities and towns have managed to save a great deal of water, the study found, mostly by keeping to quotas set by the Water Authority. The most impressive achievements in this regard were made by Bat Yam and Kfar Sava, both of which conserved nearly 40 percent of their water consumption between 2008 and 2009. In contrast, the index showed that water consumption in Ashdod and Modi'in was still on the rise.

One outstanding example of conservation of open space was found in Jaffa, where the slope leading to the beach - which had become a garbage dump over the years - was successfully transformed into a park. Another positive example cited was Jerusalem's network of community gardens.

The environmental index also looked at the number of trees in public spaces in the various cities and towns in relation to the number of residents. The cities found to have the highest number of trees per capita were Ra'anana, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was found to have one tree for every four residents, in Jerusalem the figure was a tree for every 7.4 residents, while Ashdod sprouted one tree for every 14 residents.

The organizations that prepared the index noted that despite progress in some areas, most cities and towns still lack comprehensive programs to improve their environment, and mechanisms for involving the public in environmental preservation projects are still random and limited. Data is also lacking on open spaces, and municipalities are not purchasing environmentally sound products or making municipal vehicles more environmentally friendly.