Can Israel Become Garbage-free?

Israelis have the distinction of being among the world’s biggest creators of trash. Despite calls by environmentalists to reduce waste and recycle, now experts believe the ultimate goal should be life without any garbage.

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The garbage-collection pit at the Hiriya recycling park southeast of Tel Aviv is considered one of the largest in the world. The pit, where waste is brought before being sorted and transferred elsewhere, is five meters deep − and never empty. Whatever is transported to other locations is always replaced by more waste, which is delivered by between 800 and 1,000 garbage-compressor trucks every day. The waste-transfer station operates 24 hours a day, 364 days a year, and is closed only on Yom Kippur, the day of fasting and purification.

When you stand on the ramp alongside the pit and peer into the sea of garbage below, you can see a blurred, amazing mixture of pieces of bags, crates, plastic wrappings. Later, when you get over the initial shock, you also see details: celery stalks, a doll’s head, pieces of a baby carriage, half a soccer ball.

Scenes from the recycling park.Credit: Koby Kalmanovich

That is what the layman sees at Hiriya, whose dumping area was closed down in 1998, after which the country’s largest waste-transfer station, a major recycling site and an educational center were erected. For those who check, sort and clear away trash, for those who research and manage it, such sites impart important information. At city dumps, professional eyes examine garbage to decipher our consumption habits, class differences, and even the size of our families and our level of education. Sometimes, by examining trash, they discover evidence of obsessions and crises. When professional eyes look at the huge garbage-collection pit at Hiriya, they see possibilities for recycling and reducing its contents, using insight gained in recent years. But there are also other professional eyes − of experts who believe that such insight is obsolete. When they look at the vast pit, they see a future when there will be no need for it. To them, there should be no such thing as garbage.

Israelis are the second biggest creators of garbage in the world, relative to population size, after the United States. How did we achieve this? And how does one interpret the overall picture of our trash management?

About two months ago, the Center for Environmental Education at Hiriya launched a series of lectures called “When Culture Meets Trash.” Perhaps for the first time in the country, attention is being focused not only on trash and the technology for treating it, but also on the way in which it relates to Israeli history, culture and sociology. And this center is the perfect place for discussing such subjects: Although there are several sites in the country which collect and treat waste, the Hiriya recycling facility, which belongs to the Dan Region Association of Towns, is the largest of them and serves 24 local authorities. Its history, its present and past, provide a lesson in the history of trash in Israel.

Back in September 1955, according to statistics collected by engineer Eyal Shani, 300 tons of trash per day were unloaded at the Hiriya dump; in 1963 that figure rose to some 500 tons, and in 1987 it was 1,300. Today, 3,000 tons arrive at the site daily.

Scenes from the recycling park. Credit: Koby Kalmanovich

Idit Alhasid is director of the site’s Center for Environmental Education. “In the 1950s, people collected the trash in jute sacks and put it in front of their houses,” Alhasid says. “A horse and buggy, and a few years later a truck, would pass by every few days – not even every day – and collect the sacks.

“The generation that lived here in the 1950s was a generation fighting for survival,” she adds. “Many had survived the Holocaust under unconceivable conditions. This was a generation that would never have dreamed of throwing out food, packaging or wrappers.
Our mothers and grandmothers would always find a way to reuse the margarine wrapper. It’s interesting to see the extent to which these values are now coming back in the ‘retro kitchen,’ which is based on reuse. But great effort must be invested in teaching such values. I’m 48-years-old and belong to the generation for which recycling was a way of life. My children, on the other hand, will look at the used margarine wrapper and complain that it’s unaesthetic.

Reclaimed land at Hiriya.Credit: Koby Kalmanovich

“The great revolution in consumption and, in its wake, the creation of [massive amounts of] waste, took place in the early 1990s,” notes Alhasid.

The amount of trash generated in the country each year increases by 3 to 5 percent. Avi Novik, owner of Shahaf Environmental Planning, the largest firm in the country in the field of waste treatment, explains that this phenomenon stems from changes in the consumption of everything from nails to laundry powder.

In 2005-2006, for example, he studied samples of domestic waste in Haifa, Hadera, Umm al-Fahm, Zichron Yaakov, Jisr al-Zarqa, Ashdod and in communities belonging to the Menashe Regional Council − all of which had been previously sampled in 1995. Novik says he was able to get a picture of the changes that had taken place over a decade in consumption and waste-disposal habits.

“You take the trash from one or two trucks, divide it into four parts and take one-quarter of that amount, from which you check about 100 kilograms. You take samples by hand, with gloves, down to the last nail,” he says.

Novik, an environmental planner, discovered that the proportion of organic waste ‏(i.e., from fruits and vegetables‏) had decreased by 8 to 10 percent, which meant that “between 1995 and 2005 we began to eat much more junk and less cooked food.”

With charming histrionics he describes some of his discoveries, which alternately drive him crazy and fascinate him: Disposable diapers, for babies and adults, “are a national plague,” he declares, and one of the most amazing findings is that plastic bags alone constitute 4 percent of all our trash. In Zichron, he continues, “the wine bottles killed me, they simply killed me. There was a difference there of hundreds of percent in the data from the two surveys, and not because of the local winery. The culture of entertainment and alcohol consumption in Israel has simply changed completely within 10 years.”

Beyond the surveys, Novik has examined waste in over 20 local councils. In Tel Aviv, he explains, a person generates on average 3.3 kilos of garbage every day − as compared to 1 kilo in poor communities. But, he notes, “that’s a misleading statistic, because between 700 and 1,000 million people enter Tel Aviv daily for work and entertainment, and it has waste from commerce and factories.”

Novik adds that, when celebrating his 50th birthday two years ago, “I invited friends and family, distributed equipment to them, and together we went to do a trash survey in Modi’in. That’s how I celebrated my jubilee.”

Which place in Israel creates the smallest amount of trash per person?
“The city of Elad (near Rosh Ha’ayin) − a place whose garbage I’m still looking for. They generate less than 1 kilo per person per day. There’s a large number of yeshiva students in the city who live very frugally.”

The differences between the quantities of trash in places like Tel Aviv and Elad, and of its contents, was the subject of a recent lecture at Hiriya. When asked what distinguishes “poor” garbage and “rich” garbage, Alhasid says: “When you can buy more, you throw out more. But things have changed since the ‘classic’ studies relating to socioeconomic gaps were done, comparing the contents of a garbage can in Savion to that of Rahat. What’s interesting about the garbage of the rich and poor is that in recent decades it reflects the power of ‘emotional consumption.’

“The change has taken place mainly in poor people’s garbage,” she adds. “In the past it included organic waste, such as peels and leftover vegetables. Today it also reflects a need and desire for compensation and acquisition. In the garbage cans of poor communities, you can see quantities of cheap, disposable plastic items, toys or items that were purchased in ‘Everything for a Dollar’-type stores, a lot of cheap packages and bags.”

How has garbage in the wealthy neighborhoods changed?

Alhasid: “‘Wealthy’ garbage was and remains good, high-quality garbage. Inside the trash bins are leftovers and packaging of expensive food. Around the cans you can find almost-new electrical appliances, almost-new furniture. In recent years, more and more rich or middle-class people arrange cast-off furniture and clothing nicely, on a bench or next to the garbage bin, which testifies to a growing awareness concerning recycling and reuse.”

And the middle class?

“There’s an interesting difference between the middle class from the periphery of the country and the urban middle class. Parents from the peripheral areas tell us they don’t understand their children’s endless need to hang around and buy things in the malls in the big cities, after which they throw things out. The children of the suburbs and the periphery feel they need to buy much more than children who live near [Tel Aviv’s] Dizengoff Center, who pass by it daily and become indifferent to it.”

What’s happened to trash in ultra-Orthodox society, which tries to fortify itself against the passion for consumption?

“We would have assumed that the Haredim don’t fall into the consumption trap, but Haredi society uses tremendous quantities of disposable items: cups, tablecloths, cutlery, diapers, aluminum pans. Bnei Brak, where garbage cans were for years a bastion of organic waste, has turned into an ‘empire’ of stores for disposable dishes that find their way into the garbage. A Shabbat meal is set on a disposable tablecloth, with disposable dishes, and at the end the housewife wraps everything in a disposable tablecloth, turns it into a garbage bag and throws it out. The same is true of Arab society and everywhere where women are trying to deal with the heavy burden of caring for a large family.”

Class differences can be seen not only in the contents of trash, but also in geographical terms, in connection with residents’ proximity to the dumping areas. The first collection point is usually an outlying municipal landfill − the city’s “backyard.”

“If you take the train from Nahariya to Be’er Sheva, in every community you can see a so-called backyard that doesn’t ‘suit’ the city to which it belongs,” says Alhasid. “Every city in the country has its own Hiriya. Every city in the country has thrown trash into the backyard and suppressed it.”

The backyard of garbage has become geographically more distant and has evolved into a concept that embodies psychological and social elements such as marginalization, forgetting, distancing. In the 1950s, as a result of complaints by Jaffa residents about the dirt and stench of the municipal dump, this backyard of the greater Tel Aviv area was constructed further away: on the remains of the Arab village of Hiriya, whose residents were expelled during the War of Independence. Later the Mesubim transit camp was established not far away, and was also referred to as the Hiriya camp.

In his book “All Men are Equal − But Some are More,” author Sami Michael recalls that camp, where he lived in his youth. After he enlisted in the army, a military convoy including his team’s half-track passed by the place, and he remembers that they were enveloped by a suffocating stench “that stuck in our nostrils,” that the place had turned into a huge dump where the garbage of Tel Aviv was dumped every day. He wrote that it was a fitting monument to what had happened there, for he realized that he and all the other people living in the Hiriya camp “had been tossed into that human garbage dump by the same unknown, pale-faced people, citizens of the big city ... The monument suited the human disaster that took place there.”

In 1998 the Hiriya landfill ceased operation, leaving behind a mountain of contamination, pollution and stench that covered about 450 dunams ‏(about 65 soccer fields‏) and rose to a height of about 60 meters. The mountain, which caused suffering only to the residents of the “backyard neighborhoods” of South Tel Aviv and other communities, has since been rehabilitated. In addition to the recycling and other facilities there, it will also be the site of a huge park named for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Today the Dan region uses the Efe’e dump near Dimona, and the Ganei Hadas and Dudaim landfills between Ofakim and Be’er Sheva.

Alhasid: “There’s nothing new under the sun in this story. The center [of the country] will always transfer its trash to marginal areas, which presumably − and I emphasize the word presumably − have surplus land. Once it was Hiriya and the victims were residents of the poor neighborhoods − Hatikva, Ezra and neighborhoods in Jaffa, which for decades suffered from the stench and from flooding. The backyard has moved away, and is now located in the Negev. But in spite of the injustice that these dumps are causing to Negev residents, change will come. The land resources are becoming more expensive, so it pays to rehabilitate them. In the near future the Be’er Sheva Park and the Kishon Park [in Tel Aviv] are slated to undergo rehabilitation. Our backyards will turn into an urban area.”

Israel today buries about 80 percent of its waste in proper landfills, while the rest is transferred to recycling facilities. ‏(There are some European countries that recycle 90 percent of all trash, but in most cases the rate of recycling there ranges from 50 to 60 percent.‏) The dumps are huge pits lined with woven plastic sheeting, and contain pipelines for syphoning off gases and leachate − or “garbage juice,” as it is popularly called. Every day the trash unloaded at local dumps is covered; the landfill is closed down after the waste reaches a certain height. The authority in charge of each site is obligated thereafter to rehabilitate the landscape and to continue draining off leachate and gas.

But in spite of recent improvements at once-primitive municipal dumps in Israel, landfills are considered the least advanced method for handling waste today. They take up land that can never be used for construction and, in spite of the drainage systems, they are unable to deal properly with various kinds of pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions. The garbage buried in them is buried forever and cannot be reused.

Israel aspires to reduce landfill use by 50 percent by 2020. Attorney Doron Sapir, chairman of the Hiriya recycling park and Tel Aviv’s deputy mayor, is doubtful that this goal can be reached. On the other hand, he is very optimistic about a plant that is currently being built and is due to open at the park in three years. This NIS 200 million facility will produce Refuse-Derived Fuel ‏(or RDF, a fuel substitute that does not emit pollutants or toxins as ordinary fuel does‏), which will replace one-tenth of the polluting fuel that is needed to operate the Nesher cement factory in Ramle. The new plant will take in 1,500 tons of waste daily ‏(half the amount of trash currently unloaded each day at the Hiriya site‏) and will recycle it instead of sending it to a landfill.

Smaller recycling and reuse projects have already been operating at Hiriya for over a decade, involving pruned branches and construction waste, for example. There is also a first-of-its-kind experimental plant on the site: Owned by the local Hetz Ecology company, it sorts 200 tons of trash daily and transfers it elsewhere for recycling and for the purpose of producing energy ‏(from organic components‏).

The RDF plant will specialize in thermal treatment of garbage, using incineration to create energy. For his part, Sapir believes that similar facilities are the solution for Israel’s waste problems. However, he cautions, “It takes 10 years to build a thermal [waste-treatment] facility. Even if we start to plan such facilities today, it will take 10 years until they are operative.”

Many green organizations are opposed to this solution, although compared to the former, unsupervised primitive incinerators, the thermal facilities are capable of reducing emissions of polluting gases to a minimum.

“While it may not be politically correct to consider the thermal facilities – which are actually incinerators – to be a solution, I see no other reasonable option,” explains Sapir. “Our choice is either to send the trash to a landfill or to send it to be incinerated. The second method is clearly preferable.”

What is the cost of the alternatives to burying trash? How much does it and will it cost us to recycle?

Sapir: “A lot. When they buried the waste in Hiriya, every ton cost the authority that removed it $6. Today, transporting the waste to the south costs about 40 euros ‏($52.7‏) for the same ton. [Treatment at] a thermal facility in Europe costs about 100-120 euros per ton of waste. That means burying trash, including the costs of transportation and treatment at the landfill sites, will always be cheaper than any recycling alternative. But we all have to understand that the cost of burial − pollution and loss of land − is far greater.”

“Nobody really knows how to calculate these costs,” argues Yair Engel, who specializes in design for sustainability. “Sending a ton of trash to Hiriya didn’t really cost $6. It cost billions of dollars, which was paid later in order to rehabilitate the site and to create alternative systems. Sending a ton of trash to a landfill in the Negev doesn’t cost 40 euros, and burning a ton of trash doesn’t cost 100 euros. In the final analysis, all this cost billions that will have to be paid to rehabilitate the land, to cure illnesses caused by pollution and gas emissions, to fund studies to cure those illnesses, and more.

“The consequences are endless, and therefore to say that a holistic-environmental solution is expensive is not only a mistake, it’s a lie,” Engel adds. “Not Sapir’s lie, he’s an excellent man who has to find immediate solutions, but that of various entitities that deceive us. It is a terrible crime, to allow the economists of world governments and global industry to trick us with these calculations. The calculations are done with one wicked hand greasing another, in a world where anticancer associations are funded by chemical companies interested in perpetuating the present situation.”

Engel is the Israeli representative of Cradle to Cradle, a movement that has been acquiring devotees all over the world for over a decade, but until now has received little local exposure. It first won publicity when its founders, German chemist and former Greenpeace activist Michael Braungart and American architect and designer William McDonough, wrote a trailblazing article in 1998 called “The Next Industrial Revolution.” The article was later expanded to the book “Cradle to Cradle,” which will be published in Hebrew by Babel next month.

The authors level harsh criticism against the “green” concept that has become prevalent in the past three decades, and under whose influence we are enslaving ourselves − out of naivete, guilt feelings and defensiveness − to what are called the “three Rs”: reduce, recycle, reuse.

“Eco-efficiency,” they write, “is an outwardly admirable and certainly well-intended concept, but, unfortunately, it is not a strategy for success over the long term, because it does not reach deep enough. It works within the same system that caused the problem in the first place, slowing it down with moral proscriptions and punitive demands. It presents little more than an illusion of change. Relying on eco-efficiency to save the environment will in fact achieve the opposite; it will let industry finish off everything quietly, persistently and completely.”

Says Engel: “While I was studying design at the Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, I was disturbed by questions related to our ethics as designers. In the late 1990s I discovered ‘Cradle to Cradle’ and now I’m working with several designers in Israel and abroad, advising them on how to design holistically. Together we think about the breathing space of a given item, how much the trucks and planes that transport it will pollute, and so on. The prevailing concept today talks about reducing pollution. The idea is to feel less bad and behave in a less harmful way. The definition of a ‘green’ product is ‘a product whose harm to the environment is reduced.’ But we don’t believe in ‘less’ but in ‘more.’ Braungart says: ‘Doing “less bad” is like saying I beat my child only three times instead of five.’ Instead of looking at the forbidden substances, we have to educate, allocate budgets and develop permitted substances.”
Existing recycling methods are expensive and imperfect. Pollutants are still emitted during such processes, plus the quality of materials decreases during recycling. Because of this, recycled products will also end up at the garbage “grave” in the end.

On the other hand, the focus on the concept of cradle to cradle − and not from cradle to grave − means that all materials, goods and houses will be developed in terms of a holistic system which takes into account all the components and all the processes such items go through from the moment of manufacture. Indeed, the first product planned by Braungart and McDonough at the start of their joint career was designed to prove that such things are possible: They succeeded in creating a fabric without raw materials that pollute, which at any stage can be turned into another product or a “raw ingredient” − and still maintain the quality of the original fabric. This fabric will never end up in a landfill or incineration “grave”: At most, it becomes organic waste − nonpolluting food for the soil.

Thus, according to the idea of cradle to cradle, there will no longer be a concept of waste as we understand it. Instead, it will exist as in nature: as a sort of food. If the waste is organic, it will reintegrate into the “biological cycle.” If it is nonorganic, it will be integrated into a “technical cycle.” A car that has been designed so that its raw materials, and the processes they undergo when the vehicle is in use, do not pollute, and their quality does not decrease at the moment of recycling − that car will eventually be “food” for another technical product.
Engel: “Hundreds of private firms and public institutions have already adopted the principles of cradle to cradle. An entire district in Holland has adopted the method; certain corporations, such as Nike, are producing an experimental collection of ‘cradle to cradle’ shoes.” Among the clients are the governments of Taiwan, Belgium and the United States, companies such as Phillips, Herman Miller and Aveda. The Puma company makes shoes that can be tossed into the garden when you finish using them, as food for flowers.

Engel believes the principles of cradle to cradle can be implemented in Israel now; the only thing preventing this is indifference.

“All the raw materials in Israel come from outside. We pay a fortune for them and they’re destroying our economy. When they turn into waste we send them to landfills in trucks that use fuel purchased from outside,” he notes. “What do we put in the landfills? One-third is organic material that can be turned into compost, and the rest is inorganic waste that can be used in recycling. We recycle 93 percent of beer bottles. That’s proof that it can work. In order to do it, we have to begin creating support systems and connections among various industries. At the moment we’re throwing money into the garbage can.”

In spite of the differences in approaches to dealing with waste, Israel has passed laws in recent years that are truly historic. In 2008, “polluter pays” legislation, initiated by MKs Dov Khenin ‏(Hadash‏) and Michael Melchior ‏(Labor-Meimad‏), was passed, allowing imposition of very heavy fines on corporations that pollute the environment. Last summer, the Packaging Waste Reduction Law was approved, obligating manufacturers to collect and recycle about 60 percent of all the packaging materials used in the country within four and a half years.

“There is and will be a lot of money for finding future solutions,” says Novik. “It comes first and foremost from the local authorities. This process has received, and will receive, significant reinforcement from two main sources. The first is the ‘landfill levy.’ The payments go to the Maintenance of Cleanliness Fund in the Environmental Protection Ministry, and are used to develop alternatives to landfills. The charge increases by NIS 10 per ton annually; in recent years, hundreds of millions of shekels have been channeled into the fund. The packaging law will be the second main source of funding. The law makes the manufacturers and importers of consumer items responsible for collecting and recycling packaging waste ... The money we will all earn from this will total hundreds of millions of shekels.”

“The ‘polluter pays’ law is an excellent law,” notes Sapir. “On the other hand, the ‘packaging law’ is still a riddle. In addition to the industrialists, to whom these laws are mainly addressed, the private citizen will have to learn to separate waste and to internalize a different consumer culture. The ‘cradle to cradle’ theory will catch on in the end, but very slowly. It will be internalized when other important principles are internalized: that when it comes to waste, we are one world, one country, one government. That waste is part of our lives, and that we have to pay attention to things even before they become waste.”

For her part, Alhasid emphasizes that Israelis have to change their habits − this means industry, entrepreneurs and the business sector, and every citizen in his own home.

“We began a campaign to raise consciousness about this in the Center for Environmental Education about three years ago, and since then we’ve been trying to teach visitors that we are all part of this process,” Alhasid says. “There isn’t a single group responsible for the revolution, we are all responsible for it. After people come here and are exposed to the quantities of garbage they have thrown out − garbage for which there is still no proper disposal infrastructure − they experience a ‘positive trauma’ that arouses thought and awareness with respect to developing a different dialogue with the environment and with their own need for consumption.”

Earlier you mentioned emotional consumption. Are recent decades, as opposed to the 1950s culture of collecting and saving, also characterized by “emotional disposal”?

Alhasid: “Absolutely. There’s satisfaction in disposing of things, too. The experience is one of cleansing, of clearing away. But like the consumer experience, these are momentary phenomena. After half a year we want to make room again − presumably, to be reborn. But this ‘fantastic’ rebirth creates more waste, most of which is buried in the ground and takes up space without being reused.”

“It’s amazing,” says Novik, about the Israeli talent for creating trash. “Although the United States consists of many states and the waste-producing statistics aren’t uniform, on average – relative to population size, of course − it leads Israel by only 18 percent. They are followed by European countries. There, incidentally, I’ve been seeing for the past two years how the economic crisis is affecting garbage. The Europeans are aware of the crisis, are afraid of what it will bring, are buying less and creating less trash.”

Notes Engel: “My father came here from Finland, and I feel that my interest in environmental ethics comes from the education he gave me. On family trips we would clean up the place we had come to, cover the organic waste with soil and throw the technical waste into the garbage bin. My father wouldn’t allow us to pick even a single flower, while all around us we would see the hikers picking bouquets of flowers for themselves. I feel that’s very Jewish: We’re a chosen people, the flowers are for us. Everything is for us. But the next stage, dealing with the ‘trash’ − the flowers that have wilted after being picked − apparently doesn’t suit the Jewish genius. Everything comes from education, and the education in Israel is to eat and drink because tomorrow we’ll die. People consume things that they don’t need because it’s like a ‘cure.’ They don’t understand how easy it is to live differently.”