What a Waste: Jerusalem’s Underused Sorting Center

Progress has been made on the recycling front, but a growing population, bureaucratic hurdles and little awareness provide few reasons for optimism

Waste management center at Atarot industrial zone, Jerusalem, August 27, 2017.
Meiran Moran

A tour of Jerusalem’s waste sorting center could make visitors optimistic. The ultramodern facility in the Atarot industrial zone is worlds away from the dangerous dump that served the capital until five years ago. But while the GreenNet plant represents great progress in dealing with the detritus of Israel’s largest city, Jerusalem still sends much of its waste to landfills. Nor does it make full use of what emerges from the sorting facility.

Jerusalem is a test case for Israel’s ability to meet the ambitious goal set by the Environmental Protection Ministry, to send only 30 percent of the country’s waste into landfills by 2030, down from 80 percent today.

This goal is supposed to be achieved in part by building large, state-of-the-art sorting centers as well as plants that generate electricity by burning waste.

Additionally, households and businesses will be asked to separate their garbage. Every city will have orange recycling bins for packaging alongside the familiar green containers for mixed trash and blue bins for paper. The orange bins are already in use, operated by the Tamir Recycling Corporation, which is in charge of recycling packaging.

The Jerusalem sorting facility is run by GreenNet Recycling and Waste Treatment, a subsidiary of the YSB Group. Each day it takes in some 1,500 tons of waste, which are sorted using a complex system of conveyor belts that involves virtually no human intervention.

“Jerusalem’s waste has grown at a rate of 4 percent a year,” said Offer Bogin, GreenNet’s CEO. “It has unique characteristics. For instance, disposable diapers account for 8 percent of the total weight, and there’s no facility in the world today that can recycle that.”

According to GreenNet and the Jerusalem municipality, about 40 percent of the city’s waste is sent for recycling, with the rest sent to a landfill in the Negev. That’s an impressive figure compared to other Israeli cities, but the reality is less impressive than it sounds.

The vast majority of the recycled waste is organic material (food scraps and other waste) that is sent to the Massua composting facility in the Jordan Valley, run by the Veridis company. But once it arrives, about a third of the waste (mainly bits of plastic, paper and glass) is separated from the organic waste and sent to a landfill. Moreover, part of the rest goes unused, since farmers don’t want to deal with compost that still contains shards of glass.

“There’s no technology in the world that can separate organic components from municipal waste to a quality suitable for agricultural use,” said Amiad Lapidot of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense. “It’s hard even in countries like Germany, where there is much less organic material in household garbage than in Israel. That’s why separating at the source is important,” he said.

“It’s right to use central sorting facilities, but the separation there isn’t optimal, and the final product has low economic value,” agreed Guy Samet, the director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry. “Therefore, all countries with advanced [waste] treatment have bins for several types of trash earmarked for recycling. Statements by Israeli mayors – like in Tel Aviv, for instance – that a central sorting facility will deal with everything, so separating at source is unnecessary, are incorrect.”

Veridis said the organic waste it gets from Jerusalem is composted and used mainly in orchards “where there’s no contact with the fruit. It’s also used to improve and enrich lands poor in minerals.

“Because of the problem of glass shards, the company sought and found a high-tech machine that lets us filter out 98 percent of the shards,” it added. “That will let us produce higher-quality compost for other agricultural produce as well.”

Samet said that even though Veridis sends some of its waste to landfills, “it still makes compost. And every gram of waste that’s used for agricultural purposes is better than sending it to a landfill.”

Another problem is that demand for paper and cardboard – which the GreenNet plant also separates out – has declined. And while some of the separated plastic is recycled in Israel, most is exported to recycling plants in Turkey.

This isn’t only due to Israel’s lack of suitable infrastructure. There’s currently a global problem with plastic recycling, because East Asian countries, including China, have started refusing to accept plastic from other countries, mainly due to its poor quality.

The opening of the central sorting facility apparently contributed to Jerusalem’s recent decision to remove some of its recycling bins for bottles and paper. The ELA Recycling Corporation, which collects the bottles, said that several dozen of its bins were recently removed by the municipality, and it is awaiting an explanation. Residents have also complained.

Moreover, Jerusalem currently has no agreement with Tamir to collect packaging for recycling. The company says it can sign such a deal only if the city agrees to deploy its orange bins widely, so that people can easily deposit their packaging there.

The city said it has removed only a few recycling bins, and only in places where they impeded pedestrian traffic. Moreover, all those places already have neighborhood recycling centers to which people can bring their trash, it said.

Its goal is “to improve the city’s appearance and public spaces alongside separating trash for recycling,” the statement continued. The municipality said that the city has over 100 neighborhood recycling centers and around 3,000 recycling bins scattered around the city, and will consider adding more “where the infrastructure permits it.”

Samet said his ministry asked the municipality to make clear that it hasn’t given up on recycling bins. “They issued a statement, but it’s important for us to see what they do. They have to continue placing [bins], and also reach a collection agreement with Tamir. If they don’t do these things, we’ll enforce the Packaging Law.”

Both GreenNet and the ministry are pinning great hopes on a waste-to-energy plant that is planned near Ma’aleh Adumim, outside Jerusalem. Such a facility could accept much of the municipal waste that is now sent to the landfill, and also some of the unused waste from the composting plant. Four months ago, an interministerial committee issued a request for proposals for building and operating the plant, as well as similar facilities elsewhere in Israel.

But the Ma’aleh Adumim plant may now face a planning hurdle. Asaf Rosenbloom, who heads the legal department of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, contacted the ministry this month to warn that the plant can’t be built until a detailed plan is approved, even if the site has already been zoned for such use in principle. His organization supports building the plant, he said, but only after a proper planning process that considers its environmental impact.

His letter relied in part on a High Court of Justice ruling a few weeks ago that said Haifa’s Oil Refineries needed a detailed plan before building production facilities that would affect the environment.

“We have a legal opinion saying we can proceed with building the plant,” Samet responded. “It seems a bit strange to me that after we found a suitable site, they’re raising bureaucratic objections. This isn’t Oil Refineries, and the environmental problems here are completely different.”