Why an Israeli Green Activist Gave Up His Little Garden of Eden

His eco-friendly home drew thousands every year, but then he decided it was high time to live like ordinary Israelis

Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh
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Amiad Lapidot
Amiad LapidotCredit: Rami Shllush
Shuki Sadeh
Shuki Sadeh

Amiad Lapidot, the man responsible for sustainability and recycling at the non-profit organization Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense), took an unconventional step a few months ago: He left a detached home in the moshav Kerem Maharal, south of Haifa, for an apartment in nearby Tirat Hacarmel.

The house he left wasn’t just any house. Lapidot built it himself, using earth and straw. It collected 50 liters (13 gallons) of dew every night, enough to flush a toilet for a whole day. Over the last few years the house had been a draw for sustainability and environment fans. Nevertheless, Lapidot decided to rent it to a family from Tel Aviv and move to a public housing apartment with his wife and three kids.

“For me, this house was the starting point for making changes,” says Lapidot in an interview with MarkerWeek. “It had 23 fruit trees, there were always vegetables and fruit to eat, the house made its own water, cooling or warming itself as needed, everything was better there. Nevertheless, I decided to leave. After 15 years in that wonderful house, I realized that it wasn’t a source of inspiration. People don’t live that way. There were 1,500 to 2,000 visitors a year but no one builds houses like that. I considered what was wrong with it, whether I’d made too sharp a turn. I realized I had to do something people could relate to. Most people live in cities, in high-density housing, so I had to live like that too.”

His explanation is impressive, but at the end I couldn’t restrain myself, noting that one could also see him as a sucker. Who moves voluntarily from a single-family home to a public housing? Lapidot smiles. “Yes, I’m a sucker,” he says. “I don’t mind walking around with a sign that says so.” But right away he tells a story.

Lapidot, who owns a company that does projects for local authorities, ran a project a few years ago to encourage people to separate organic and non-organic waste. In one place, he tried to think how to sign up a 56-apartment building.

Plastic recycling bin, Tel AvivCredit: Eyal Toueg

“It was very discouraging at first, but we didn’t despair. Instructors, working for me, went from door to door, from house to house, explaining about waste separation, giving small tips on how to put paper or newspapers in a bag so it doesn’t drip. In the end it worked, for one reason only. Ostensibly, given the size of that building, it seemed reasonable to place a special, large 770-liter bin for organic waste there. But I knew that would derail the project. If I’m a tenant who sees five bags in one large container, I ask myself if I’m the only sucker who separates his waste.

“So I decided to place a smaller 150-liter bin there,” he continues. “In that one, five bags already make it look half-full. When someone called the municipality to report that the bin was full, they’d contact us and we’d bring a new one. In any case, we examined the bins once a day. We added bins as required, indirectly talking to tenants through these bins. They didn’t feel like suckers, but that this was an important project and that someone cared about them.”

Worms to work

Lapidot is what you’d call a “type.” He started working at Adam Teva V’Din, one of the leading environmental groups in the country, a year ago, after a career as an environmental activist. He brought worms to the organization’s Tel Aviv office to improve the quality of the compost made from organic waste employees deposited in a special container. On the conference room window sill he grows organic lettuce, which the staff eats.

Despite the dismal state of the environment in Israel, he’s a big believer in the possibility of significant change. He started his personal journey of change in 2000. Even though he was on course in a career that guaranteed a secure pension, serving as a major in naval intelligence, he decided to leave the IDF to devote his time to sustainability and the environment.

Lapidot says he made more money in 2000 than he does today, but he has no regrets.

His decision came after learning in his university studies in geography that the Mediterranean was then the most polluted sea in the world and that one reason for this was the military port in Haifa.

An organic waste receptacle. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

“I asked that with all due respect to our security, what are we ultimately guarding? Piles of garbage, polluted streams and land?” he says. “We send our best people to fight and protect us, but I realized that the country has a social and environmental problem, with not enough people manning the front lines.”

After demobilization, he worked for two organizations at the same time, the Heschel Center for Sustainability and Shatil, the New Israel Fund’s initiative for social change. He was involved in several environmental campaigns, including one to reduce air pollution in the Haifa Bay area.

He later established the Eretz Carmel non-profit, which promoted green construction methods, waste treatment and of environmental awareness. At the same time, he started working as an environmentally-conscious entrepreneur. In 2003 he set up a company that contracted with local authorities to separate organic and inorganic waste in household trash. At its peak, the company collected 72,000 tons of organic waste from 450,000 households.

Lapidot says people can be educated to reduce the amount of waste in public spaces, particularly by using less of the plastic and other disposable goods that litter Israeli parks and nature reserves.

“If we succeeded in teaching an entire nation not to pick wildflowers, to use seat-belts in the backseats of cars, we can also educate people about garbage,” he says. “Education has to begin at a young age, accompanied by enforcement. It has to be easy, simple and convenient, with a clear objective, making it clear whom this is all for.

Haifa port, a large contributor to pollution in the Mediterranean SeaCredit: Rami Shllush

“There are two traits,” he says, “that characterize us as Israelis: One is that if we’re given a lofty goal, we’re the first ones on board. Whenever there’s an earthquake or a tsunami, we’re the first ones there with a team, the first ones delivering tents, saving whoever we can, making everyone proud and happy. On the other hand, there’s something we fear – the appearance of being suckers. Once you recognize these two traits and pay attention to them, you can change the mind of any Israeli. Prove to him how worthy the goal is and show him he’s not a sucker.”

He says it’s important to understand that waste has economic impact. The negative side is the need to collect and dispose of it, along with the environmental damage it creates. The positive side is that waste can be turned into something of value through recycling. In the yard of his house in Kerem Maharal he set up a big installation into which he throws dry waste. It produces methane gas that flows through a pipe into his house for use as cooking gas. From the other side of the installation comes a liquid fertilizer he uses in his garden.

Valuable garbage

“It’s an idea I thought about when I was invited to the village of Jisr al-Zarqa, where there are wonderful people who are trying to think of ways of reducing the problem of waste there,” he says. “After touring the village, I thought that if all waste had some economic value people would stop throwing it away, collecting it instead. That’s when I thought of developing this installation .... This shows that things we throw away without thinking twice can have economic value. Decision-makers should also think like this.”

Over the last two years, Adam, Teva V’Din has made the war against plastic one of its prime objectives, and Lapidot was brought in to lead the fight.

Plastic has become a global problem. It infests almost every ecological niche, with terrestrial and marine creatures frequently suffocating on plastic bags or wrappings. According to Israel’s Environmental Protection Ministry, one million tons of plastic waste are produced in Israel yearly. Less than 10% is recycled. While it makes up only 18% of the weight of waste, it amounts to 90% of its volume.

According to Adam, Teva V’Din, Israelis spend 2 billion shekels ($560 million) a year on disposable dishes, with an average household spending 776 shekels. Nine tenths of the garbage on beaches is plastic, with 42% coming from disposable dishes and utensils. Use is growing steadily but there is no legislation to reduce rein it in.

Amiad Lapidot.Credit: Rami Shllush

Does plastic cause more damage to health or to the environment?

Lapidot: “It’s the same thing. The waste you see around you will enter your body in a matter of years, through water or food intake. Plastic disintegrates into micro-plastic or nano-plastic particles. Large corporations put plastic in cosmetics, but it’s unnecessary. You can do without it. The vulnerable aspect of plastic is that it attracts all kinds of toxins. Let’s assume there is plastic in the oceans, even as small particles. Fish eat these and passes it on to us humans. No one really checks how many chemicals are in our food. Maybe they do in a few places in Europe, but not here.

“Our bodies have a limited capacity to contend with large quantities of toxins,” he continues. “The European Parliament realized that this issue has implications and has made these disposable items illegal, starting in 2021. In France the law kicks in next year, whereas in India these items will be illegal by 2022. One has to understand that a disposable plate you throw in the garbage contains plastic, even if it’s made out of paper. It doesn’t just make the environment ugly; it decomposes and reaches groundwater and food. This isn’t just a health hazard, it’s an economic one too.”

Why economic?

“Let’s say, as a way of illustrating the problem, that a disposable plate costs me 20 agorot. Removing one kilogram of plastic plates costs 77 agorot on average, but if you find it in some park or stream it costs twice as much, 1.40 shekels for each kilogram. The solution is therefore to make the price of a plate one shekel – 20 agorot for the plate itself and 80 agorot for the cost of its disposal.”

So you favor a high minimum price for plastic ware?

Plastic recycling plant, Ramat Hovav, IsraelCredit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

“When you raise the price of cigarettes, the number of smokers declines. When they legislated that plastic bags at supermarkets cost 10 agorot each there was an 80% drop in the use of bags at supermarket chains. At Adam, Teva V’Din we’re working on a bill that would set minimum prices for plasticware. The public wants to recycle but it’s not be given enough tools to do it. The state is not investing enough to increase awareness of this issue or provide the infrastructure for recycling.”

Giving up disposables

Are you prepared to tell an ultra-Orthodox mother of eight that the price of disposable plates and utensils is going up?

“I’m working with the ultra-Orthodox community in Zichron Yaakov, where they’re 20% of the population. After a process we went through, you won’t find disposable dishes in their homes. I’m talking about families with six, even 10 children. Mothers I talk to support our campaign and wish me luck, even though they admit that most of the ultra-Orthodox community uses disposable plastic dishes.

“I believe in the approach that change is possible,” he says. “The law for plastic bags is a good example. It should be expanded to groceries and all other stores, but the beginning is good. This approach should be used for all plasticware. Right now, it’s clear that a prohibition on disposable dishes and utensils is a decree the public cannot heed. In France it began with a price tag on these items, and by 2020 they will be outlawed. In any case, it’s a gradual process.”

Lapidot is optimistic with regard to a gradual process, but in the case of deposits on bottles, a gradual approach failed. When the law was passed in 1999, it applied only to small bottles, with the idea that increasing awareness would cause the public to collect big bottles as well, bringing them to bins operated by ELA Recycling Corporation..

But then interest of ELA and Central Bottling Company, the Israeli Coca Cola bottler and an ELA shareholder, was to prevent the law to being expanded to include larger bottles. That would have cost the soft drink industry 200 million shekels for a dedicated logistics center. The pressure has succeeded so far.

You talk about a gradual process, but these processes involve powerful players, as seen with the law concerning bottle deposits.

Lapidot: “First of all, they are violating the law. The law is on auto pilot. You didn’t need a new law that would apply to larger bottles, but one which would have excluded them. The minister should have issued an ordinance and brought it to the Knesset’s Economic Affairs committee. But this didn’t happen, which is a violation of the law. We’ve asked for a temporary injunction in this matter, in a petition to the High Court of Justice. It’s important to understand what’s happening here. The only reason Israeli citizens cannot collect large plastic bottles in exchange for a deposit is a decision by one cabinet member.”