Down in the Dumps: Israel’s Trash-recycling Plans Go Nowhere

A decade after the law was amended, recycling still accounts for just a fifth of household waste, the lowest in the Western world

Bins for paper, dry and wet trash in Ra’anana.
Alon Ron

For many Israelis, the daily chore of taking out the garbage means separating wet waste and putting it into a brown container, packaging materials into an orange one and the rest into the standard green bin.

But the fact is many of them are wasting their time because in the end it will all end up in an undifferentiated landfill where in 20, 100, 1,000 or a million years it will become organic material again. Only about 20% of Israel’s household trash is recycled, among the lowest rate in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The only three with lower rates are Mexico, Turkey and Chile – all much poorer countries that produce less garbage per capita and with much more land to devote to giant landfills.

“We are worried that it won’t be long before Israel has no place to build homes and that we have to bury the dead one on top of the other because there isn’t room for cemeteries,” said Guy Samet, deputy director general for local authorities at the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Israelis produce 5.4 million tons of waste every year, an average of 1.7 kilograms per person daily. That is a lot more than Europe, where trash per capita has been falling from 1.5 kilos in 2002 to 1.3 now. That said, in the United States, the world’s garbage power, the average is 3.5 kilos.

Even in Israel’s most recycling-friendly city, Netanya, the rate is only 31%, which puts it behind the average for most OECD members. In some countries, like Germany, Switzerland and Belgium, landfill is a thing of the past – all garbage is either recycled or burned for energy.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. When Gilad Erdan was serving as environment minister at the start of the decade, he pushed through an amendment to the Maintenance of Cleanliness Law that set a target of 50% recycling by the year 2020. The legislation set best practices for waste treatment, authorized public awareness campaign, set fines for violations and attracted private sector investment – but years later, Israel’s rate of recycling is still the same 20% as when the law was approved.

In a report last year, the state comptroller cited a host of problems in the way officials handled the power the law gave them. In particular, the Environmental Protection Ministry based decisions on faulty data, whose source in some cases came from vested business interests and in other cases whose origins were unclear.

Fines piling up, too

Meanwhile, the fines imposed on local authorities have been piling up as fast as the landfills. Since the law was passed the government has collected some 2 billion shekels ($550 million) from authorities that failed to recycle all the garbage required under the law in their jurisdictions. As their fines grow and Israelis dispose of more trash, the penalties have grown as well and reached 500 million shekels just in 2015.

The money the ministry collects, however, isn’t going to help reverse the situation. Only 155 million shekels has gone to education and 200 million for equipment to help with separating trash. Samet says the fines aren’t meant to be a punishment but an incentive to recycle.

Needless to say, the local authorities are unhappy about this. Haim Bibas, chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, says the ministry is “misleading the public” and calls the entire recycling effort a “farce.” Far from incentivizing them, local officials would rather pay the fine because the costs of recycling are even higher. They no longer use the designated bins and trucks for separated waste because the government never developed the collection stations for the trash.

Bibas says Israel’s fundamental mistake was to put the burden of separating trash on the consumer rather than having it done at a central facility Having consumers undertake the job requires educating them and even then they often do a poor job of it. It also requires taking up space for multiple bins on crowded urban streets.

But if recycling has been a flop, Israel is embarking on an alternative strategy of incineration. In Japan, almost 90% of the waste is burned and of this, 70% is used to generate energy. In Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, 50% of the waste is burned for energy.

The Environment Ministry estimates the cost of an incineration facility runs to about 1 billion shekels, so with funds collected from fines supplemented by private sector investments, Israel could build three, enough to handle up to 50% of all the country’s waste.