What's That Stench?: Israel Scraps Plans for Waste-to-energy Plants Due to Backlash

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The Dudaim landfill site in southern Israel, April 11, 2016.
The Dudaim landfill site in southern Israel, April 11, 2016.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A plan to build three facilities to produce energy by burning garbage has been scrapped by the Environmental Protection Ministry, after people living near the proposed sites and environmental organizations objected.

The ministry had initiated the plan under the previous minister, Zeev Elkin, who was seeking to reduce the amount of waste buried in landfills. But residents in the three locations were vehemently opposed because they feared bad smells and air pollution, while environmental advocacy groups insisted the plan was expensive and polluting, and that there are more environmentally friendly ways to deal with the waste.

The National Infrastructure Committee began the planning process for the three facilities two months ago. One installation was to be built in the Ashdod industrial zone, with the other two planned for the Hiriya recycling park, southeast of Tel Aviv, and the Morasha Interchange, outside Ramat Hasharon to the north of Tel Aviv. The waste-to-energy plants were part a long-term plan that was launched by Elkin to reduce the burial of refuse, which is how 80 percent of household waste is handled.

In addition to these installations, the ministry was seeking to set up one in the West Bank, near the settlement of Kfar Adumim. It’s not clear whether that plan will go forward. It was the ministry’s intention to eventually build additional energy-producing incinerators around the country.

The Hiriya Recycling Park, near Tel Aviv, Israel, March 26, 2017.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The proposals provoked widespread public opposition. Ramat Hasharon vehemently opposed the construction of a facility near the Morasha junction, and Ashdod-area residents organized to try to stop the incinerator slated for that city. In the case of Kfar Adumim, the Green Now Association, in cooperation with representatives of area settlements, filed a petition with the High Court of Justice against the decision. The main reasons given by the opponents were fears of air pollution and bad odors that would be emitted by the incinerators.

In response, Environmental Protection Minister Director General David Yahalomi asked the National Infrastructure Committee to stop advancing the plans, saying that the current environment minister, Gila Gamliel, was looking to draft a long-term strategy for dealing with waste.

A number of professionals working at the ministry said they were frustrated by Gamliel’s decision because it follows a series of inconsistent policy decisions by previous ministers on how to deal with waste. For example, Gilad Erdan, when he was minister, introduced extensive measures to separate waste to encourage recycling, but his successor, Avi Gabbay, chose to reduce this activity. While Elkin was an ardent supporter of waste incineration, now that plan is also frozen.

Waste-to-energy incinerators are very common in Europe’s most environmentally advanced countries, helping them comply with the European Union’s Waste Framework Directive. The plants generate electricity and eliminate the need to transport waste over long distances.

The main alternatives to such facilities are increasing recycling, which involves many foreign companies and requires significant government support, or increasing the use of facilities that produce energy or fertilizer process from organic waste.

Another alternative is to send sorted refuse to existing facilities that need fuel in any case, and which can use the waste as a substitute. The large RDF plant that operates near the Hiriya site, for example, sorts and treats waste and sends burnable waste to the Nesher cement plant in Ramle, where it replaces some of the plant’s fuel. The Israel Electric Corporation is examining the possibility of using waste as a fuel substitute in its facilities as well.

A waste recycling plant in Kiryat Ata, Northern Israel, 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The most environmentally friendly alternative to burning waste is, of course, reducing the amount of waste produced. To meet this goal the government must provide considerable assistance to recycling plants, and products must be designed differently, to reduce the volume of the packaging that reaches the public. There are also  other approaches that are only partially implemented in Israel, such as levying a fee on plastic bags at supermarkets.

The director of the environmental organization Zalul, Maya Jacobs, said in response to the ministry’s move, “I whole-heartedly welcome the decision,” adding that, “I believe that a tough policy could rescue tens of thousands of tons of raw materials that are found in our garbage bins and create jobs, rather than burning them and causing unnecessary and dangerous air pollution.”

Adam Teva V’Din, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, said in a response that it “doesn’t oppose in principle converting waste into energy, and it’s a stage that’s certainly required in the hierarchy of waste treatment. However, one must remember that it’s the stage before the last one, and before that there are a wide range of moves that must be made to reduce waste and increase recycling. Under no circumstances should more than 25 percent of our waste be burned, and one must recall that incineration has the potential to pollute.”

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