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The whale that reached the shore of Sidni Ali beach in Herzliya five years ago was already dying. It passed away while being treated by volunteers from the Israel Marine Mammals Research and Assistance Center (IMMRAC). An autopsy found 4.5 kilograms of plastic bags in the belly of the whale.

"To this day it is not clear why it swallowed so many bags, whether by mistake or from hunger," says Dr. Daniel Keren of the University of Haifa, the physician who performed the postmortem. "A whale's stomach has several sections. The first section is mechanical, and from it the food passes to a section for advanced digestion. If a bag gets stuck in the passage, it blocks all the passages and causes death by starvation, because the whale cannot digest what it swallows and vomits it. In the first days the mammal utilizes reserves of fat, but it grows weaker, is unable to chase prey and reaches the shore thin and dying."

In another case, Keren came across a dolphin that had died after the plastic containers from six-packs of beer got wrapped around its pharynx. "If the dolphin is still growing it actually burns his mouth; he can breathe, but not eat. Regrettably, dolphins, seals and walruses are inquisitive animals that get involved with all kinds of things in the water and get into trouble too many times."

"With all our good will as veterinarians who love these animals, we cannot chase bags in the water," says Dr. Alon Levy, from the Weizmann Institute of Science and IMMRAC. Fifty veterinarians with a hundred endoscopes cannot save one dolphin from idiotic environmental hazards such as plastic bags."

But it is not only marine mammals that are being victimized by the plague of plastic bags. According to a study conducted by the Eilot Regional Council in 2003, "In all the nature reserves in the area [the far south], the trees grew unique fruits called plastic bags, the hiking routes are filled with bags that are scattered all over by the strong winds of the bay, particularly the wadis around the Nimra waste landfill, not to mention the ugly sight of beaches padded with plastic. It's clear that no one-time cleaning operation will solve the problem. It turns out that birds also swallow the bits of disintegrating plastic that are scattered by the wind, in the belief that they are seeds, and die of suffocation."

Dr. Benny Shalmon, the regional biologist of the Nature and Parks Authority of Eilat, reported that postmortems done on ibexes found that they had choked to death on plastic bags. "Wolves and foxes that feed at open garbage dumps swallow bits of bags that can block their digestive systems, and remnants of them have been found in their droppings. Bags that cling to coral reefs strangle the coral to death in the same way that they can cause the death of a person whose head is wrapped in a plastic bag."

Five billion bags a year

Every year Israelis use five billion plastic bags, which pose a threat to the environment. "It is hard not to be impressed by the Israeli national sport," writes Avi Novik, from Sheldag, a company that deals in environmental management solutions. "It begins with the collection of bags while shopping for food and ends as the most common item in the landfills. The most common carrier found in the [national] survey was plastic bags, most of them of the rustling supermarket variety."

The use of plastic in its various forms has reached incomprehensible dimensions around the world, and is causing a major environmental headache. Plastic encourages the consumption of throwaway products, 90 percent of which become waste within six months, but take hundreds of years to degrade, if ever. Tons of plastic bags are thrown into the regional landfills and constitute a great proportion of the hills of refuse. They also adversely affect the separation and recycling of the waste in the landfills and are harmful to the quality of the compost (organic waste recycled for use as fertilizer) that is produced from it.

Millions of other bags that never make it to the landfills fly through the air and pollute the streets of cities, beaches and open spaces. They create safety hazards for motorboats and cars and, as we saw, cause animals to die a cruel death.

According to the official in charge of recycling in the Environmental Protection Ministry, Elad Amihai, supermarkets and other chains make use of about 430 million bags a month, or some five billion bags a year, at a cost of NIS 50 million. The 2005 national survey of the composition of waste found that the bags make up 7 percent of all waste in Israel and that their accumulated weight is 350,000 tons a year.

No free gifts

The official data confirm the feeling that consumers use plastic bags on an unlimited scale and are populating the universe with them - so much so that the subject has reached the public agenda (see box). In Israel, awareness of the problem is quite low, even compared to other environmental issues. Even so, in the past two years two bills have been submitted in the Knesset concerning a reduction in the use of plastic bags - though not their recycling, which at this stage is not economically viable. Last November, a bill sponsored by MKs Esterina Tartman (Yisrael Beiteinu), Dov Khenin (Hadash) and Michael Melchior (Labor-Meimad) which would oblige the use of paper bags instead of plastic bags was passed in preliminary hearing. The proposal drew fierce professional criticism, since the manufacture of paper is no less harmful to the environment, and is costly, inconvenient and not practicable.

MK Khenin, who is held in high regard as a professional environmental parliamentarian, dissociated himself from the bill to replace plastic with paper, but does not feel any embarrassment at the criticism he took. "The bill passed in preliminary hearing only, which is a type of declaration concerning the start of dealing with a subject. Thanks to the bill, a public hearing developed, in the course of which we were persuaded that paper is not suitable."

Khenin and Tartman drew up an alternative proposal which is set to pass preliminary hearing next month. The new plan calls for every shopper in a food store to pay one shekel for each bag he asks for, with the money to be placed in a fund to maintain environmental cleanliness. The public fund would be headed by the director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry and will include representatives from the finance and interior ministries and local governments. But the idea of creating a mechanism for collecting billions of shekels a year is already stirring demands for more thorough and professional planning, in order to prevent another failure like the legislation for deposits on bottles.

"The big chains and their customers are hitchhikers profiting from leeching on the environment," says Dr. Ofira Ayalon, an expert in waste management from the University of Haifa and the Samuel Neaman Institute for Advanced Studies in Science and Technology at the Technion. "The chains provide a supposedly free product, and the customers, the consumers, very much enjoy getting the product for free and also hoarding it. But in the end, there are no free gifts, and the price is paid by the environment."

The use of plastic bags in Israel developed together with the growing tendency to buy in supermarkets, which in the 1970s still looked like the American dream come true. Back then, even the neighborhood grocery store charged half an Israel pound for a carrier bag. After the establishment supermarket chains ran into difficulties and went bankrupt, collapsed, were sold, merged and relabeled themselves, fierce competition developed in which bags were customarily provided free of charge. The leap in living standards allowed the chains to absorb the marginal cost of the bags within their vast revenues, and those who had experienced the country's austerity period forsook the neighborhood stores, streamed in their masses to the supermarkets and started grabbing up the free bags. This practice continues to this day, with great pleasure on all sides.

"The Israeli consumer does not hoard bags out of miserliness but for convenience," MK Tartman says. "After all, what are the bags used for? Ninety-nine percent of them become garbage bags, and what is easier than a free bag? This is the type of behavior we are out to change. If there is chocolate on the shelf, no diet will help, and our task is to remove the chocolate from the shelf."

Is it still possible to combat the phenomenon? According to Galit Avishai, former head of the Israel Consumer Council and now director of Public Trust, a consumer advocacy group, "to wean the Israeli consumer from the habit of collecting plastic bags, it will be necessary to invest in education and develop the element of shame, to make people feel they are doing something wrong."

Dr. Shahar Dolev, director of sustainability studies at the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership in Tel Aviv, maintains that the most effective educational solution is to charge money for the bags. In countries where this method has been introduced, he says, the use of the bags has decreased by tens of percent. "Supermarket chains that are already selling multiple-use or degradable bags do not agree to supply them free," Dolev says. "Because the clients are also in no hurry to buy them, the solution is make people forgo the regular bags by charging for them. The money that will come in after the law passes will be used in part to educate people to get used to something else."

Sustainability studies focus on recycling product life, and the analysis takes into account all its environmental values: the raw materials of which the product is made, the country of manufacture, the energy expended in the production process, the packaging, the transportation and even the exploitation of the workers.

"The idea is not to act against production, but in favor of better production," says Yair Engel, who is involved in sustainable design and advises MK Khenin. "Sustainable design prefers functional planning that from the outset will maximize environmental elements," he explains. "It is not by chance that we are not talking about recycling."

Dolev also proposes that manufacturers and marketers adopt techniques to marry ecology with economics: "It is true that the chain stores have had a bad experience with the deposit on bottles, but to charge a shekel per bag at the checkout counter is a lot easier than collecting bottles. I also believe that the chains will be able to win a little bonus for themselves from this service."

Biodegradable bags

Last January, the Council for a Beautiful Israel sponsored the first public conference to reduce the use of plastic bags. Among the participants were the minister of environmental protection, Gideon Ezra, MK Khenin, the CEO of the Supersol chain Effi Rosenheus, representatives of Public Trust and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, and about 10 environmental designers and entrepreneurs. All the participants admitted that a problem exists, irrespective of the conflicts of interest between them.

"The plastic bags are a national problem," says Merav Nir, marketing director of the Council for A Beautiful Israel, one of the country's first environmental organizations. A public association that awards certificates of appreciation and prizes to environmental protectors, the council is conducting a modest publicity campaign to promote the idea in two ways: by supporting legislation to impose a monetary levy on the use of the bags, and by encouraging the transition to the use of biodegradable plastic.

"Our model is Ireland, where consumers were charged 15 pence for each bag, and their use plunged by 90 percent. We are suggesting a charge of 25 agorot [a quarter of a shekel] per bag," Nir says.

"As for biodegradable plastic, it is an organic material made of corn stalks and sugar cane. It has been in existence for a few decades. The material preserves qualities identical to regular plastic but it has a very limited impact on the environment and it can also be used to create compost. It does not emit toxins and it breaks down within a short time, weeks to years. The past few years have seen an acceleration in the development and use of the material. Today it is already used to manufacture packaging, disposable utensils and even raw materials for medical implants. The only problem is that it is four times more expensive, and in this connection we are promoting an Israel standard to prevent fake biodegradable plastic."

The high cost tempts manufacturers to fake the material, and another argument against it is that it also encourages the use of disposable items. Yair Engel, who recently joined a United Nations team as an adviser for introducing green consumerism into Israel, explains: "The UN is trying to instill in its member states a relatively innovative social-economic model that encourages commerce based on rental or leasing of products. This will induce marketers to maximize product quality and not to prefer to sell a disposal item that quickly turns into harmful waste."

Plastic-bag police

The new bill has been signed by 29 MKs from all the parties in the Knesset. The legislation was formulated mainly by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), based on the Irish model and data on waste supplied by the Environmental Protection Ministry. The bill stipulates that all food stores (supermarkets, grocery stores and others) will collect NIS 1 for each disposable bag taken by the consumer, and the revenue will be placed in a fund to maintain cleanliness. The levy will not be imposed on the small bags used to carry vegetables and other products. Retailers will also be obliged to sell standard multiple-use bags for NIS 4.5. the stores will report on all the bags they buy and sell, and a special enforcement agency of the Environmental Protection Ministry will supervise collection of the levy, conduct searches, impose fines and file criminal indictments if necessary.

Khenin explains that the decision to include only food stores in the legislation is intended "to focus on the place where the problem is truly formidable, so that the consumer will not think we are trying to affect his quality of life. If the law succeeds, it may well be applied to other areas of commerce as well."

Isn't this a mechanism that will have a turnover of billions of shekels a year and create an opening for endless manipulation?

"The goal is not to collect as much money as possible, but to reduce the use of the bags as much as possible; to change consumer behavior by means of economic tools. The proposed solution is also rational as well as environment-friendly, because at the end of the day a multiple-use cloth or nylon bag is far more efficient, convenient and safe to carry. As for manipulation, the world is filled with it, but you solve one problem and cope with the others."

The bill says nothing about a system for collecting the money. "The law will take effect six months from the date of its publication in the Government Gazette," Tartman says. "In order to create a suitable economic mechanism, the supermarket chains will synchronize the computer systems and the public will be exposed to relevant publicity."

Will we not see another failure here, like what happened with the enforcement of the law concerning deposits on bottles?

"There is no magic solution regarding enforcement, and we have not come to chase away the dark."

How will you garner the Knesset's support for the legislation?

"Before the ministerial committee meets, I will do lobbying, because I have to get the support of the coalition in the ministerial committee," says Tartman. "I believe that they will offer me a deal so they can take credit for the law, but this time I will agree only if they undertake to move the subject ahead within 60 days. The problem with this law is that despite the consensus of values in its favor, the wars of who gets the credit might hurt it."

And if the law passes, will the MKs be able to educate the consumers who customarily hoard bags?

"Plastic bags are part of a very broad problem of use-and-dispose, and what's needed is education of manufacturers and consumers to change production methods and consumer habits. I am radical in this regard, and want to arrive at a model that aspires to manufacture only what the environment allows and what we need, and of course to distribute the means fairly."

Scientific model

Some, though, decline to be swept up in the plastic bags panic, and question the need for legislation against the bags. "In our view, the problem of plastic bags in Israel is not as serious as it is made out to be," says Dr. Ofira Ayalon, from the Technion. "That doesn't mean it doesn't have to be dealt with, but all this frenzy has to examined thoroughly before laws are enacted."

Ayalon casts doubt on the data concerning the bags that appears in Novik's 2005 survey, and she sent the Environmental Protection Ministry an opinion to that effect. "The data in the survey are extremely problematic," she says. "The 350,000 tons of plastic bags is an impossible figure. All the plastic bottles are calculated at 40,000 tons a year. In our estimation, the real weight is barely 50,000 tons, but let's be generous and say 100,000 tons."

According to Ayalon, before enacting legislation it is necessary to create a scientifically-based economic model that will determine what is good for the country's economy. "But as of today, no scientific study has been conducted concerning the preferential policy. The Samuel Neaman Institute submitted a research proposal to the Ministry for Environmental Protection, but we did not get a reply. It looks to me that they prefer to come out with the new law, because it's a populist issue with a great deal of money involved."

Ayalon is urging legislators not to make do with specific action that produces quick results and political success, but instead to prefer a systemic approach with a more thoroughgoing solution. "Of course, it's preferable for the money to enter the cleanliness fund and not the treasury," she says. "But the fact that a vast amount of money is involved is another reason to carry out the scientific economic research that will determine the optimal tax to be levied and the budgeting of the operational plan. We have already seen how easy it is to make decisions of the bottle deposit type; it cost us a lot of money and did not change the picture."

But that will only delay a solution, and in the meantime the bags are piling up.

"Maybe, but that is the very same kind of populist thinking. Why is no one talking about the fact that organic waste is not being separated properly, and that 40 percent of it is causing far greater environmental damage than the bags?"

In response to Ayalon's comments, MK Khenin admits that he is still in the conceptual stage and is not fully knowledgeable about the data - but promises to become so. "In regard to the quick response to the subject, my attitude toward environmental problems is incremental and not hierarchical: one change after another will create whole and welcome segments."

Will you create a mechanism with a turnover of billions of shekels without a proper scientific examination?

"We will do it intelligently and not rashly, on the basis of proven data and a model that is convenient for the chains and the consumers. Within a few days we will commission a professional scientific study, the results of which will be known within a few months. I promise that without it, we will not express our position on the bill in the Knesset committees."

Back to the basket

Proposals for alternatives to plastic bags include bags of biodegradable material, multiple-use bags made of recycled plastic fibers and multiple-use bags that fold to a small size, which when opened are suitable for carrying heavy weights. There are also folding, multiple-use plastic boxes, suitable for car storage. Increased use of wheeled shopping carts is also being encouraged, and of course the good old hard-plastic carry-bag with the latticed sides.

In the meantime, though, until alternatives become the norm, awareness in the stores is not exactly gaining momentum. This month, with its cluster of Jewish holidays, will see the use of at least another 500 million bags of the rustling type. So ingrained is indifference to the subject that the spokesperson of the Blue Square chain did not even bother to respond, despite repeated calls. By the way, the owner of that chain, David Weissman, last month acquired control of the branches of Eden Nature Market, perhaps in order to lend the Blue Square stores more of an ecological character.

Suzy, the shift manager of Eden Nature Market in Or Yehuda, says, "This is a revolution that is hard to implement just now. We offer cloth bags for NIS 2 but the customers prefer the free plastic ones. Our impression is that the true consumers of organic food are in favor and the regular customers don't really understand what it's all about."

A senior official from the competition, Supersol, Eli Gidron, took the time to explain that chain's approach to the proposed legislation: "I don't know very much about the new suggestion, so I also have no position concerning the proposed levy. But without examining the alleged scale of the damage, we took a few steps, even if we do not intend to stop the free distribution: we started to install a machine that enables individual bags to be pulled out, and it has already proved itself. We are also offering the 'green basket,' made of woven plastic fibers, for multiple use."

In the meantime, Nitzat Haduvdevan, the chain of health food stores, has taken an activist approach. A sign has been placed at the checkout counter of the chain's branch on Ibn Gvirol Street in Tel Aviv: "Nitzat Haduvdevan is joining the struggle in the world environmental crisis. Let's cut down the use of plastic bags and use cloth bags or re-use the bags we have. From August 1, every client who does not use plastic bags will get a 1 percent discount on his purchase."

Despite this welcome initiative, the products in the store continue to be packaged in plastic. "In our stores we are wracking our brains to figure out how to get rid of the plastic bags," the owner and importer, Herzl Bibi, explains. "We are negotiating with a manufacturer in China for the experimental purchase of 50,000 cloth bags at 30 cents a bag, which can carry five kilograms and will be distributed free. Everyone who comes back with the bag from home will get a discount. I only hope the customers will be fair and not grab bags. I will be very happy to see customers carrying bags of the type that my mother used to take to the market in Jerusalem." W