The World Is Fighting Plastic Use. Why Hasn’t Israel Caught On?

Study finds Israelis are world’s No. 2 in per capita use of plastic and disposable plates and cutlery

A demonstration against disposable cutlery in schools, October 28, 2019. The child's sign reads "Enough disposables!"
Meged Gozani

Any beginning cook knows that food prep creates a ton of garbage – food scraps, empty containers, wrappers and more. And the growing trend of ordering food leaves diners with piles of takeout containers, plastic utensils and packaging. Thus it’s no great surprise that the food service industry is one of our society’s biggest polluters.

According to BDO estimates, some 20% of food consumed in Israel comes from professional kitchens – such as meals at work, restaurants, hotels, and events. In 2017 an average of 1.9 million people ate out an average of 1 meal every day, which works out to 650 million meals a year, or some 750,000 tons of food.

In Israel, the trash problem is particularly problematic. While Israelis create a massive amount of trash, and are among the world leaders in use of plastic and disposable plates and cutlery (second in the world in per capita use) as well as the quantity of discarded food, Israel is also light years behind when it comes to the global fight on pollution and in civilian awareness, solutions and legislation.

A new comparative study conducted by Adam Teva V’Din slated to be published within the next few weeks compares plastic use in Israel versus other countries found that the average Israeli creates 0.309 grams of plastic trash every day, more than twice the international average of 0.139 grams per person per day. Israelis also create a large amount of organic waste – 5.4 million tons a year of vegetable and fruit peels, pits, discarded food and more.

These are two separate types of problems. Plastic is a problem because it biodegrades slowly, because manufacturing it necessitates oil and also creates pollution (and thus it is better to recycle plastic), and because it harms animals that wind up consuming it in various forms.

Organic garbage is also a problem when not properly treated, explains Adam Teva V’Din’s Amiad Lapidot, who conducted the research. “Everything from the earth needs to return to the earth – lentil scraps, spoiled rice, vegetable peels, egg shells, olive pits, etc. - because that refuse is missing from our earth. Organic material is crucial in order to maintain biological wealth, and to compensate for soil lost through erosion.”

The problem in Israel is that most restaurants and home discard their organic trash into the regular trash bins, and from their it is buried instead of being returned to the earth. There, it undergoes anaerobic decomposition and releases methane gas into the atmosphere, which is both poisonous and one of the causes global warming.

In other countries, people separate out their organic garbage into separate trash bins. In Israel, you’d be hard-pressed to find such things. This has financial implications as well – BDO estimates that some 220,000 tons of food were discarded from commercial kitchens, or 3.5 billion shekels’ worth. One-third – 70 tons – of that food is useable.

“I’m afraid people aren’t planning to be here for long, because otherwise they wouldn’t take part in this waste,” says Amiad. “There’s an unberable ease of plastic use in the restaurant industry,” he says. He recounts a recent meeting at a coffee shop, where he ordered a fruit shake and was automatically given a plastic straw. He complained, and yet when he ordered water a few minutes later, he was automatically given another straw. And that’s not to mention the incredible quantity of garbage that comes with takeout – each food packaged separately, wrapped in non-biodegradable paper and inside a plastic bag, alongside disposable flatware.

Winds of change

Efrat Enzel, the culinary advisor at the Tel Aviv Municipality’s Authority for Environmental Quality, believes change is coming. “Living creates pollution and daily food prep creates a lot of waste, so of course this industry creates more garbage than an accounting office,” she says. But people are starting to pay attention. Tel Aviv this week announced that it was ending the daily use of disposables at schools and preschools in response to a parent protest – currently, the schools use some 100,000 disposable plates a day, or 20 million a year. And two weeks ago, coffee chain Landver announced that its 77 branches would switch from plastic bags to paper bags, while Ikea Israel announced last week that it would stop selling and using disposable plastics.

While these companies are ahead of the curve in Israel, in other countries, corporations have become more ecologically aware years ago, due to consumer demands as well as the recognition that the earth’s resources are being used up.

Israel lags behind for several reasons. They include a lack of awareness; a lack of inexpensive, efficient means for recycling and reusing; and a lack of regulation.

Hila Oshinsky, marketing manager for Landver, says the chain’s management began to discuss transitioning to paper straws at the beginning of the year. “Change often comes from our children, who are exposed to the campaign of 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.” She noted that customers generally don’t drink with straws at home, and that restaurant chains around the world are doing away with straws because it’s the easiest change to make.

Paper straws cost five times as much as plastic straws, but the chain intends to compensate by reducing the use of straws in general, Oshinsky says.

In December, Landver intends to switch its takeout packaging to cardboard and paper, said Oshinsky, while acknowledging that this is only a partial solution – it’s hard to take far-reaching steps when Israel lacks manufacturers of more ecological disposables, so for the time being the company is stuck using plastic lids. It also still hasn’t found an ecological, inexpensive solution to plastic takeout cups, she says.

Enzel agrees, noting that a company that wants to find a more ecologically friendly option for packaging takeout would be hard-pressed to find an alternative in Israel. “Most of the containers won’t biodegrade because they’re coated in plastic. And if there’s a solution, it’s a matter of working with new suppliers and changing the branding on the packaging. You need to change your entire product line, and that costs a lot of money.”

Ariel Leizgold, owner of the Monkey Business group, which operates the bars 223, Bellboy, Fantastic and Hotel De Ville, says his businesses stopped using plastic straws two years ago, but acknowledges that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “This is a very polluting industry. Everyone in the field knows that we're not doing enough. We’re not proud to be part of a wasteful industry, but given the lack of available solutions, it’s hard to take far-reaching steps. It’s expensive to protect the environment, and given a lack of solutions that are aesthetic, culinary and not expensive, we’re doing what we can – we’ve switched over to reusable napkins. We also try to use fruit peels for decorations, syrups, jams or cocktails.”

Change needs to come from the top, with the government, Leizgold says. The restaurant industry, which is embattled as it is, can’t take everything on its shoulders, he says.

Enzel agrees that the problem begins with the government. “If we had an Environmental Protection Ministry that understood how far behind we are compared to other countries, it would launch recycling and public education campaigns and plans to help businesses become greener,” she says.

Attorney Assaf Rosenblum, head of Adam Teva V’Din’s legal department, adds that an additional problem is that Israel hasn’t had a proper government that can actually make decisions.

While Israel has a law mandating that producers and importers recycle packaging, not all producers actually do this, and enforcement is limited, he says.

The Environmental Protection Ministry stated in response: “There is room to improve the handling of garbage in Israel’s food service industry, and the ministry is looking into tools to reduce this garbage and to separate refuse such as organic waste.” A strategic plan due to be published within the next few months will address restaurants’ use of disposable plastic dishes.

The ministry also noted that a European directive on waste was approved in May, and that countries were given two years to implement it, and that Israel would be aligning itself with international legislation on the matter.