What a Waste: Israeli Air Force Tackles Alternative Refuse Disposal to Avoid Colliding With Birds

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An Israeli Air Force F-35 plane performs during a graduation ceremony for new pilots in the Hatzerim Air Force Base near Beersheba, Israel, on December 29, 2016.
An Israeli Air Force F-35 plane performs at a pilots' graduation ceremony at Hatzerim Air Force Base in southern Israel, in 2016.Credit: AP/Ariel Schalit

For several years the Israel Air Force has been forced to deal with a problem of large flocks of birds that gather near waste disposal sites in a search for food. The birds endanger the IAF planes that take off from nearby bases in the south of the country, and planes often collide with these flocks.

Due to the accumulation of incidents the Defense Ministry recently asked the planning institutions to change the system for managing the country’s waste disposal sites – a request that emphasized the poor handling of waste in Israel, where there is almost total reliance on landfills.

Today almost 80 percent of Israel’s waste is transferred to several landfills, the largest of which are in the south. At these sites a large quantity of waste remains exposed for long periods of time and serves as a source of food for birds, which endanger aircraft. The main problem is at Dudaim and Ganei Hadas, north of Be’er Sheva and a relatively short distance from the Hatzerim air base.

In recent years it is mainly black kites, which are birds of prey. There have been 12 incidents in the past five years in which aircraft collided with such flocks, as reported by the Defense Ministry to the Environmental Protection Ministry and to the Interior Ministry planning administration. There have also been many near misses. The Defense Ministry said that the risk near Hatzerim is especially great because pilot trainees without much experience fly there.

The increase in the problem is demonstrated by a study of black kites conducted in the past three years near Hatzerim by doctoral student Daniel Berkowitz from the Tel Aviv University Department of Zoology. He attached transmitters to dozens of birds and gathered a great deal of information about their movement habits and behavior.

According to the study, there are almost 25,000 black kites that arrive in the northern Negev from Central Asia and Russia and stay there from November to April. In the past there were only several hundreds or thousands, which came for a short time. Occasionally the birds arrive at the Hatzerim base in search of termites, a desirable source of food, and the risk to planes is even greater. Berkowitz said that the IAF uses means such as flare guns to distance the birds from the runways, but that doesn’t solve the basic problem of thousands of birds in a radius of about 10 kilometers from the base.

The Defense Ministry has drawn up recommendations to change the work practices at the landfills. The ministry requests that only waste that has been sorted for recycling be interred, thereby reducing the amount of waste, especially the organic component that contains leftover food. The ministry also recommends interment at night.

A bird feasting on a garbage dump.Credit: Daniel Berkowitz

These recommendations were already up for discussion several weeks ago in a committee belonging to the National Outline Plan for Solid Waste, which includes representatives of government ministries and organizations connected to the waste industry. Several participants expressed a fear that it would be difficult to inter waste at night since that would require a change in the entire waste disposal system in the cities. The National Council for Planning and Building is supposed to decide in the coming weeks.

It’s clear to environmental activists that the entire problem would have been avoided if the proper environmental steps had been adopted in the past. The Environmental Protection Ministry has yet to succeed in bringing about steps for replacing landfills, including an efficient and large-scale recycling system, producing fertilizer from organic waste or producing energy by burning waste. In order to bring about a change the ministry will have to implement its plan to build facilities for sorting and for producing energy from waste.

The same solutions that would help solve the problem of the birds near the air force bases are being implemented in environmentally advanced countries. The Environmental Protection Ministry can now hope that the risk to IAF plans could serve as a lever to promote such steps.

Meanwhile the private operators of Dudaim plan to complete construction of a waste sorting station that would reduce the amount of waste brought for interment. At Ganei Hadas there are no similar plans, which depend on the planning and building institutions and the Environmental Protection Ministry. The operators of Ganei Hadas want a permit to raise the level of waste that can be interred, in order to continue to operate the site in the coming years.

The Environmental Protection Ministry: “Dudaim is in the stages of building an advanced sorting station, and the sorting leftovers will be interred in new facilities. Reducing the organic component should reduce the birds’ attraction to the site. Ganei Hadas is scheduled to be closed in the near future if their request to raise the level of waste is denied.”

The IDF spokesperson: “The air force has worked throughout the years to reduce the risk, and has made changes in the infrastructure of the aerial routes at the air force bases. The study made recommendations which have been adopted by a number of landfills and government bodies. But implementation at Ganei Hadas has yet to begin and the site constitutes a significant safety risk.”

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