Burning Garbage a Major Cause of Israeli Air Pollution

Garbage fires were source of 60 percent of all emitted substances known or suspected to be carcinogens in 2018

The Efeh landfill in southern Israel.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Garbage fires have become one of the main causes of air pollution in Israel, and last year they were the source of 60 percent of all emitted substances known or suspected to be carcinogens. At the same time, industrial pollutants fell by 4 percent to 19 percent compared to 2017, says the Environmental Protection Ministry's 2018 report on Pollutant Release and Transfer Register.

Last year three large waste fires broke out at three sites: Efah, Dudaim and Yeruham, two of which process most of the waste from central Israel. In total, 34,000 tons of waste were burned – an amount equal to 10 days of garbage generated by the Tel Aviv metropolitan area. The burnt garbage contains carcinogenic residues.

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The garbage fires raised the level of materials in the air suspected or known to be carcinogenic by 28 percent, compared to 2017. These figures do not include the byproducts of illegally burned garbage, and many other waste fires that take place in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are not reported and lead to even greater exposure to pollution. A large garbage fire broke out a few weeks ago in the Hagal landfill site in the Beit She’an Valley, and since the beginning of the year a number of widespread fires erupted in the Galilee and West Bank at illegal dumping sites.

Guy Samet, the ministry's director general, said the data “show clearly that the time has come for us to stop burying waste in the Negev.” The ministry is promoting the construction of facilities to produce energy from waste that cannot be recycled, and that will prevent the illegal burning of garbage, he added.

In 2018, the levels of pollution from industrial sources fell, and since 2012 they have dropped by 70 percent. In the Haifa Bay area, emissions of various pollutants fell last year by 10 percent to 45 percent, over 2017. Part of the drop can be explained by a closure of factories.

But the per capita amounts of nitrogen oxides in Israel are still double those in European countries and this is an important measure of dangerous emissions, the ministry says. The main source of these oxides is not factories, but Israel Electric Corporation power stations.

The Pollutant Register for 2018 is based on reports from 570 facilities, including 202 factories and 212 waste and sewage treatment plants about air, ground and water pollution.