After Recycling Shortfall, Israel Pins Hopes on Burning Garbage for Energy

Israel is now aiming to recycle 35 percent of its garbage by 2020, not half, but a first incinerator may take eight years to go online if it's approved at all.

A sorting and recycling facility for construction waste near Shoham.
Tomer Appelbaum

The Environmental Protection Ministry is looking for new initiatives in  recycling, including one based on burning waste to turn it into energy, after Israel’s efforts at recycling have come up short.

Still, a first incinerator for the project, at a cost of around $275 million, may need eight years to be planned and built if it passes the complaints phase.

Five years ago the ministry declared a recycling revolution aimed at raising the garbage recycling rate to 50 percent by 2020. This month the ministry published its goals for this year, but the recycling rate hasn’t changed and remains at 20 percent.

The recycling goal for 2020 is now 35 percent, though based on recent progress, it’s doubtful that even this will be achieved.

The recycling revolution was based on financing that enabled local governments to separate organic waste mainly food leftovers from the rest. Some areas also have orange bins for wrapping and packaging material, following the law stipulating that packaging producers and importers would finance this effort.

The separated waste was brought to sorting stations, from where it was sent for recycling, and there were plans to use it to produce energy.

The Environmental Protection Ministry assisted in the separation efforts and in the setting up of recycling and energy-production facilities. It secured a fund based on the taxation of local governments for every ton of waste they sent for burying.

But the garbage separation project didn’t proceed as expected; people didn’t separate their garbage as directed. Several large cities including Ashdod, Hadera, Arad and Ofakim have recently given it up.

Eager to revive the project, the ministry promised a grant to cities based on the amount of separated waste they sent for recycling. The garbage can be separated either by the residents or by the city in a central facility, but so far the incentive hasn’t had an effect.

“We see a serious reduction in waste-handling activity in the last two years,” said attorney Asaf Rosenbloom of the environmental group Adam Teva V’Din.

“There are no estimates for dealing with the organic component, in contrast to what’s happening in Europe, for example. We pushed for a national plan for this but we’re not sure what policy it will be based on. Also, half the packaging producers and importers aren’t helping finance the treatment of this waste, so the scope of the recycling hasn’t grown,” he said.

“Despite the ministry’s announcements that it would award building permits for more treatment facilities, these facilities aren’t being built. And the government isn’t addressing the aspect of reducing waste production; for example, by reducing the amount of unused food.”

The deputy director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Guy Samet, says some cities will be able to separate their garbage more successfully than others. “Some will find another arrangement, like adding only an orange bin, which is also a sort of separation,” he said.

But Samet, citing the Central Bureau of Statistics, says recycling has gained momentum of late.

“One reason is the opening of a few large facilities, like the GreenNet recycling plant in Jerusalem, which drastically increased the scope of recycled waste in the city,” he said.

As for implementing the packaging law, Samet says the ministry is acting to add more orange bins. “But in any case we’re dealing with adding a relatively small amount of waste to recycling compared with the overall amount nationally,” he added.

Samet admits that recycling facilities aren’t being built fast enough. Today there is only one large plant for turning organic waste into fertilizer, and it operates over the Green Line. A large plant that’s supposed to turn organic waste into energy and fertilizer is slated to be built in the greater Tel Aviv area but planning for that project has already been going on for five years.

Issuing permits for recycling plants is a long process involving planning committees and objections by local governments that don’t want such facilities in their jurisdiction. Their residents fear the pollution and odors such facilities may cause.

For example, the Delilah site in the Yoav region treated various kinds of waste and turned them into fertilizer. The site closed down and a new one that would treat separated organic waste was supposed to open.

The plan for the new site was approved by the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee. But the access road to the site passes through the jurisdiction of the Southern District Planning and Building Committee. The Yoav Regional Council filed an objection to authorizing the access road, claiming that garbage trucks would cause traffic jams and safety hazards.

Global developments are also affecting Israel’s waste recycling facilities. Lower oil prices have driven down the price of plastic and reduced the profitability of using recycled plastic. Plants for recycling this material in Israel and around the world are finding it hard to keep going.

On a more encouraging note, a large plant was recently opened near the Hiriya garbage disposal site to separate half the garbage of the greater Tel Aviv area. Some of it will be taken to recycling plants and some to ovens of the Nesher cement plant to serve as a coal substitute.

And burning garbage to produce energy now features highly in the ministry’s plans. Samet says one incinerator will be able to burn large quantities. These facilities have let many European countries significantly reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills.

Also, despite the more effective garbage separation and sorting, about 40 percent of waste cannot be recycled because of certain components. Instead of sending to a landfill, it can be sent to plants to produce electricity.

The first incinerator’s cost is estimated at 1 billion shekels ($275 million) and its building process, including planning procedures, could take eight years. Public objection, which has blocked such plants in the past for fear of air pollution, is expected.

“We need to grow up in this matter,” Samet said. “Nesher burns waste to produce cement and nothing terrible has happened.”