No Time to Waste

Israel still has a long way to go before it joins the ranks of the countries that can boast integrated treatment of waste that does much to reduce the environmental hazards and the waste of land resources for burying the waste material.

Last week the Environment Ministry announced that the unofficial waste disposal site called Retamim, north of Ashdod, would be closed down this summer. Retamim will be the last on a list of 77 large sites that the ministry has closed down in the past decade, while simultaneously opening a number of large sites that are more technologically advanced.

Hundreds of large and small waste disposal sites that had no infrastructure for the proper storage of refuse and for preventing environmental hazards have been closed down over the past 10 years, in the wake of the government's approval of a national master plan for new waste disposal sites. The best known of the landfills that have been shut down is the Hiriya, just outside Tel Aviv, which many believed would go on growing for years. In the past few years, recycling has expanded considerably, with the rate climbing from almost nil to more than 10 percent. On top of this, waste products in the public sphere are now being dealt with more systematically, as can be seen by the containers for collecting plastic bottles.

However, although progress has been made, Israel still has a long way to go before it joins the ranks of the countries that can boast integrated treatment of waste that does much to reduce the environmental hazards and the waste of land resources for burying the waste material. Integrated treatment includes extensive use, based on environmental and economic considerations, of alternatives such as recycling of paper, plastic and glass, use of waste to produce agricultural fertilizer and incineration to generate energy.

Notwithstanding the moderate progress that has been made in rates of recycling in Israel, there is as yet no municipal system to separate waste materials for recycling, such as exists mainly in Europe, where the average rate of recycling and incineration per country is a third of the total amount of waste.

In most of Israel's large cities, the bulk of the waste is taken to burial sites, and there are plans to create more of these sites. Even more advanced sites of this kind consume land and create environmental dangers, not to mention the use of hundreds of trucks to transport the waste, bringing about congestion on the roads and air pollution.

The greatest failure so far is in the treatment of construction waste. It totals about 7.5 million tons a year (representing 60 percent of urban home waste materials). But only about a fifth of this amount finds its way to refuse sites, while the rest is dumped by the roadside, thrown into the beds of streams or abandoned on open ground. In addition to being aesthetically appalling, this phenomenon poses a danger to the groundwater because of the many chemical elements the materials contain. The Environment Ministry has tried to bring about the establishment of sites for construction waste. However, some of the sites are not yet systematically active, and in any event, many of those who produce this waste prefer to dump it in the nearest stream, rather than pay money to use an official site.

Two weeks ago, the government passed a decision that formalizes the treatment of construction waste, including the allocation of NIS 54 million to assist in the establishment of recycling plants and to beef up the enforcement system, which to date has been unsuccessful in dealing with the many builders and others who dump waste in public areas. If this decision is implemented as methodically as the earlier decision to close down the outdated landfills, there is a chance that we will see a genuine improvement.

Another step in the right direction was undertaken by the Dan Region association of cities that is responsible for the Hiriya site. It has issued a tender for the establishment of a facility to recycle construction waste, to be located adjacent to Hiriya; the site will handle hundreds of thousands of tons of such waste every year.

Another problem involved the rehabilitation of the hundreds of waste disposal sites that have been closed down. Each of them is an open environmental wound where gases and liquids continue to endanger the surroundings. At some sites, such as Hiriya, there is also concern that the slopes of the landfill will cave in, blocking streams and roads.

The Israeli government is unable today to raise money on the scale - hundreds of millions of dollars - that is needed to rehabilitate the large sites. However, it is the duty of the government and of the local authorities to come up with the money to deal at least with the especially problematic sites. The rehabilitation of a site such as Hiriya is essential not only to prevent environmental hazards, but also to ensure that the plans to build a park there are implemented. That park will be a symbol of the long process entailed in healing the environment by removing the waste materials that have been dumped all over for decades with no thought for the implications.