Israel's Battle to Ban Plastic Disposables Stops at the Army's Mess Hall Doors

While many schools and synagogues are no longer using throwaway dishes, the army is dragging its feet. Ministry plan to reduce use of plastics has been stymied by a nonfunctional government

A demonstration by children and parents against the use of disposable dishes, in Tel Aviv, Oct. 23, 2019.
Meged Gozani

The battle against disposable plastics chalked up a major victory last week, when the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality announced that it would prohibit the use of throwaway dishes and silverware in city schools. The move was spurred, in part, by a demonstration at city hall by parents and children against consumption of these polluting items. But the ecological war is far from being won. Enormous quantities of disposables continue to be thrown out every day at preschools, schools, synagogues and Israel Defense Forces bases.

While the IDF has apparently not curtailed its use of throwaway dishes, groups of parents throughout the country have been exerting pressure on authorities to ban these items at educational institutions, and local governments are being forced to seek environmentally friendly solutions. For their part, a number of senior religious Zionist rabbis have spoken out against the use of disposable plastics in synagogues and at holiday meals.

In relation to other countries, Israel is considered a leading consumer of plastic, in general, and especially disposable dishes and silverware. The combination of cheap prices, the privatization of institutional kitchens, the need to observe kashrut (dietary laws) and the consumer culture – all have given rise to a plastic monstrosity.

“If there were a plastics championship, we’d be on the podium,” says Guy Samet, director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, referring to the per capita production of such waste in Israel. “The United States beats us, but we’re in second place. And unlike the United States, where a decline has begun, we’re constantly producing more and more garbage.”

The school system alone uses tens of millions of throwaway dishes and silverware every year. The arithmetic is simple: Most children in nursery schools and kindergartens through third grade eat lunch at afternoon day-care centers set up in their schools, and most of those centers use disposables. Each child receives three pieces of plasticware every day, or 60 per month, or 600 a year. In Tel Aviv alone, 100,000 of these disposable items are thrown out every day.

And we haven't even mentioned how the food is brought to these facilities. The standard method is to deliver it in large disposable, plastic containers. Health Ministry regulations stipulate that the food must already be hot when it’s transported to the schools, which increases the risk of it containing plastic particles.

To date, a few municipalities have taken up the banner of the war against disposable plastics in the school system. Among these, Kfar Sava is considered the pioneer. Five years ago, as part of a broader environmental campaign, the city decided to remove throwaway dishes from its preschools. First, it demanded that the suppliers bring the food in stainless-steel containers. It also began installing dishwashers in the schools.

Gadi Kliger, who runs Kfar Sava’s school lunch program, say this is the best solution for small nursery schools, kindergartens and regular schools with up to 100 children.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers eating in a dining room at an army base, in 2015.
Ofer Vaknin

“It takes the kindergarten teacher's assistant the same six minutes to collect the disposable dishes and walk to the garbage can that it does to load the dishwasher,” says Kliger. “Moreover, the dishwasher uses water heated to 70 degrees [Centigrade] and destroys bacteria. And from the standpoint of water consumption, a dishwasher uses 16 to 19 liters, whereas hand-washing demands 80 liters.”

Many municipalities have consulted Kliger about this issue recently, he says, adding that installing dishwashers and buying reusable dishes and silverware could potentially pay for itself within about 18 months.

Kliger: “Today, every local government spends 50 agorot [14 cents] per day per child on disposable plasticware. Kfar Sava was throwing away 660,000 shekels [$187,000] every year. The Jerusalem Municipality could save 2.6 million shekels a year.”

The real problem, however, is large educational facilities, where using a dishwasher would be complicated and inefficient, due to the large quantities of dishes involved.

The system that's been adopted by the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality – whereby every child gets a set of dishes and silverware in a lunch box, which he or she has to bring home every day and return washed – is controversial. The fear is that children will forget to bring their boxes or wash the contents, forcing the after-school day-care staff to go back to using disposable dishes.

The solution, Kliger of Kfar Sava suggests, is to set up big dishwashing centers that will provide schools with clean dishes and eating utensils. But that would require a large investment and much work on the part of local governments. Consequently, even in his "green" city, most schoolchildren still eat off disposable dishes.

Many municipalities, particularly in the center of the country, have nevertheless made significant progress in reducing the use of plasticware, including Herzliya, Pardes Hannah-Karkur, Holon, Ashdod, Ra’anana and Rehovot. But these efforts have been stymied by objections from after-school day-care staff, who are already overworked and underpaid, and have refused to take on the additional job of washing dishes.

Kids and compost

In Jerusalem, 1,000 parents have signed a petition to get rid of disposable plastic dishes and silverware, but so far, the city has only agreed to a pilot program in 30 after-school day-care centers. Yet the Kramim school, which opened last year at the initiative of parents in the city’s Beit Hakerem neighborhood, has managed without throwaway items from its inception.

Jerusalem schoolchildren eating off reusable dishes, Oct. 31, 2019
Emil Salman

“There is an important lesson here," says principal Nurit Friedman. "When the children finish eating, they put the leftovers into a composter and the dishes into the dishwasher. There are no throwaway dishes, and the children understand this; it’s the language of their surroundings.”

Still, she notes, the food is still being delivered in disposable containers, a practice the school is demanding that the catering service stop. Staff at a school in Pardes Hannah, which has switched to transporting meals in metal containers, note that this has also improved the taste of the food.

In addition to the school system, one of the biggest contributors to plasticware pollution in Israel is the army. According to the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, soldiers typically use reusable dishes and silverware at most bases and in most units, while disposables are used “mainly in field conditions, when there’s no possibility of providing reusable dishes.”

However, according to many people Haaretz spoke with, the army’s use of throwaway dishes has actually risen significantly in recent years. Both in the field and at small outposts, meals are served on them, and the same goes for meals at many bases; sometimes, only lunch is eaten off reusable dishes there.

The IDF didn’t respond to questions about whether it has a plan to reduce its use of disposables.

Children at the Keshet school in Mazkeret Batya preparing for a protest against using disposable dishes, Oct. 31, 2019
Ilan Assayag

Kiddush excesses

While all Israelis – civilians and soldiers alike – consume plasticware, usage is notably heavy among Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, for many reasons: They are characterized by large families that may not want to wash so many dishes; they have big Shabbat meals with many guests; and there are problems of kashrut, most easily solved at communal meals by using disposables. Moreover, many synagogues host a Kiddush after Saturday morning services – usually featuring a light meal – typically served in throwaway dishes.

Still, observant individuals, too, are speaking out increasingly against such waste. Indeed, before the Jewish holidays in September, a letter signed by some 200 religious Zionist figures urged synagogues and families to reduce the use of plasticware, during Kiddush and holiday meals. Signatories included Rabbi Yuval Cherlow; Avi Gisser, chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Ofra; Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who heads the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva in Jerusalem; and rabbis from the Beit Hillel organization. Their arguments were based on halakha (religious law) and Jewish sources, including a parable in which God orders Adam “not to ruin and destroy my world.”

It’s too soon to say what kind of influence the petition will have, but dozens of congregations are holding conversations these days about alternatives to disposable plastic.

“I looked at the garbage we took out after the Kiddush over the course of several Sabbaths, and I told myself it’s unreasonable,” says Sarah Prazon, who worships with her family at the Bereishit synagogue in Tzur Hadassah, outside Jerusalem. Before her daughter's bat mitzvah, she donated hundreds of reusable cups to her congregation, and then the issue of disposable dishes was discussed at its annual meeting in September.

"There was no opposition," she says. "Everyone went along with the idea of switching to reusable dishes." Every Shabbat, a different family now takes the dirty dishes home after services and washes them. “Also the synagogue has become cleaner, because people became more aware of the dishes they leave behind,” adds Prazon.

Slowly but surely, environmental awareness has begun to increase among various local religious communities, despite the fact that it is often seen as the exclusive province of "Tel Aviv leftists," says activist Einat Kramer, who founded Teva Ivri, an organization inspired by Jewish tradition that promotes environmental action. “Many issues in this country are divided between left and right," she notes, “and things happen more slowly in the religious community,” which is conservative by nature. “As long as the people representing the green worldview were people far from the synagogue world, it was hard to introduce it to them.”

Now, however, people are waking up, says Kramer: “Greta [Thunberg, the young activist who spoke out on climate change at the UN], the Extinction Rebellion movement – alongside this global awakening, the religious community has stopped feeling that this issue is foreign to it and has begun embracing it.”

Indeed, Jewish sources have for centuries touched on such issues, she adds, citing prohibitions on waste, the view that human beings are created in the image of God and thus must take responsibility for the world, and farmers' observance of a sabbatical: “The idea is that you look at the world and let it rest. When you open your heart, you see how all this carries on a dialog with contemporary reality.”

'Government instability'

Although the Environmental Protection Ministry has prepared a national plan aimed at reducing the use of disposable items, its budgeting and implementation has been hampered by the fact that there has been no functioning government and no sitting Knesset for the past year. The Finance Ministry recently announced a scheme to impose customs duties on such items, but Samet, of the Environmental Protection Ministry, isn’t convinced that this alone would help to reduce consumption.

Other steps are necessary, he notes, like forcing manufacturers themselves to be responsible for reducing waste, just as bottle manufacturers are responsible for recycling bottles. Another possibility is making it illegal to distribute disposable plastics for free, just as supermarkets must now charge for the plastic bags used to bag groceries.

“There’s currently a great public wave of support for this,” Samet observes. “The main problem is governmental instability. Unlike the issue of clean air – where you’re asking people to give up their private cars, and restricting their freedom – in the case of plastic, nothing very extreme has to be demanded of the public. It’s possible to fix this, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen.”