How Garbage Took Over Israel's Streets

Recycling bins form an urban obstacle on the sidewalks of Israel’s cities, jostling with dumpsters to collect the country’s mountain of garbage. Experts say it is time to confront the problem and stop kicking the (trash) can down the road

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A trash bin and pile of garbage in Tiberias, northern Israel.
A trash bin and pile of garbage in Tiberias, northern Israel.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

Most refuse was organic a century ago, observes Israeli environmentalist Amiad Lapidot. “There was just a little glass, wood, metal. People would throw their garbage into the street and wait for animals to eat it,” he says. “The idea of public trash cans dates back to the beginning of the 20th century,” he adds, noting that the need for garbage collection from private homes only began with the increased use of disposable, nonperishable materials like plastics.

A typical sight in Israel.Credit: Boaz Tzur / Simply Boaz

Growing awareness about the environmental impact of trash spawned the global recycling industry, which in turn has given us various trash-separating receptacles for plastics, paper, metal, electronics, etc. Israel’s cities have also become inundated with recycling bins. The idea is great, but the result is an aesthetic eyesore. They have become one of the most prominent features on Israeli sidewalks, the streets littered with green, blue and orange recycling bins.

Welcome to Tel Aviv.Credit: Ehud Kenan

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Together with glass recycling bins, they pose a real environmental hazard. Buildings constructed before the 1980s generally do not have garbage rooms. Sometimes, dumpsters and recycling bins are placed near the pillars supporting the building or in a place that was added later. Usually, though, they are just placed on the street. Dumpsters and recycling bins are hidden from view in newer neighborhoods and buildings, but they still take up a substantial amount of common space in each building. Even the width of roads is influenced by the size of garbage trucks.

Dumpsters taking over the streetsof ISrael.Credit: Gil Elyahu
Recycling bottles and dumpsters in the center of Tel Aviv.Credit: מירב מורן

A number of municipalities and regional councils have built trash bins into the ground to take up less public space. For example, a pneumatic trash refuse system (also known as automated vacuum collection) was installed in every building in the Neot Rabin neighborhood of Yavne, central Israel. This transports the garbage through compressed air conduits to central containers located outside the neighborhood.

Architect Noam Austerlitz, who specializes in green construction, says other Israeli neighborhoods are expected to adopt this system. “Additional solutions are underground systems with only a small bin above, which is less of a public nuisance,” he says. “Another solution is compressing the garbage to take up less space.”

The diaper monster

Sivan Rubin, a self-styled garbologist who leads tours about refuse, says that all the tricks that some authorities do to hide dumpsters and recycling bins from the public space is for naught, as the average Israeli simply produces too much garbage: 1.7 kilograms (3.75 pounds) per day, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry – a figure topped only by the United States.

Two overflowing dumpsters in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“In Switzerland, by contrast, they buy garbage from other countries for various uses like heating,” she says, adding, “Did you know that Israel is the biggest consumer [per capita] of diapers in the world?”

Rubin doesn’t like the attempts to hide dumpsters and trash cans. “They should put the cans in our faces so we’ll understand how much garbage we generate,” she says. “We’re obsessed with sterility, so we drink milk from a carton and coffee from capsules. The result is more garbage.”

Rubin adds that part of the problem is that China is not willing to be the world’s biggest trash receptacle anymore. It announced in January it is not going to accept foreign garbage for recycling due to pollution concerns. As a result, it is forcing Western nations to rethink their culture of consumption.

>> Wasted opportunities: Recycling stalls due to sorting problems and Chinese clampdown

The law for managing the treatment of packaging, which obliges producers and importers to recycle product packages, went into effect in 2011. The goal was to reduce the amount of trash and encourage the reuse of packaging. Following this, various recycling receptacles from recycling companies like Tamir and ALH were placed throughout the country. Most are ugly and take up a lot of space.

Yoav Yair, dean of the School of Sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, believes recycling bins should be discreetly present in all public spaces. “I encounter small bins that separate three to four kinds of refuse in airports worldwide,” says Yair. “They separate trash as part of the daily routine in some places, like putting on a seatbelt,” he notes.

Colourful row of recycling plastic dustbins.Credit: Dave Goodman
Recycling bins in Ra'anana: The blue bin is for paper, the brown bin for wet waste and the green one for dry waste such as wood, metals and glass.Credit: \ Alon Ron

Architect Avi Laiser, who has planned recycling centers for several Israeli local authorities, says that recycling facilities can create a space for communal encounters. As an example he cites the Netaim elementary school in Ramat Gan, next to Tel Aviv, which has a pleasingly aesthetic area for its recycling bins.

Guy Samet, senior deputy director of local government at the Environmental Protection Ministry, agrees that trash cans aren’t always things of beauty. “We would like to see one bin for regular garbage and another for all the refuse designated for recycling – and that’s it,” he says. “We will do the sorting. I have no desire for every citizen to be surrounded by trash cans.”

Rubin says Israel should regulate the local industry so it produces durable, multipurpose materials that won’t clog up landfill sites. The Kfar Sava municipality, for example, took a brave step by launching its “Zero Refuse” project, which offers subsidized, reusable diapers to local residents. “The authorities can influence the local economy and encourage a sharing economy – like a library of materials or products that allow for additional use,” she says.

One Israeli city clearly in need of refuse reform is Jerusalem, which suffers from a public garbage problem – particularly in its ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) and Arab neighborhoods. The dumpsters overflow in Haredi areas because of the prevalent use of disposable dishes, mainly on holidays, while Arab areas are severely lacking in trash cans. City hall installed some 1,000 trash receptacles, which are sunk into the ground, in the Homat Shmuel, Givat Massuah, East Talpiot and Neveh Yaakov neighborhoods, as well as in the city center. The municipality stresses it will install another 1,300 such bins around town in the coming years.

There are a number of initiatives among residents to reduce consumption in the city. One example is “Mahapach Yarok,” which encourages residents to separate food scraps (aka wet waste) for composting. Moran Cohen, who works on the project, says that over 5,500 families are involved. “After the bin fills up, they use the organic refuse to fertilize the nearby garden,” she says, noting that the initiative has reduced garbage weight by some 40 percent. “This step saved the city of Jerusalem 200,000 shekels [$55,000] on burying trash,” she says.

The wild, wild south

In recent years, Tel Aviv Municipality has started demanding that residents build places to store their trash, so the green recycling bins won’t end up on the streets. The move worked in some neighborhoods, but failed in places like Jaffa and south Tel Aviv. In the heavily built-up Florentin neighborhood, where there is simply no space for a garbage room in most buildings, the city decided to remove the bins entirely from the streets. In response, many residents threw their garbage bags onto the street corners.

Not everyone is unhappy about the glut of garbage bins in Israel, like this cat in Be'er Sheva.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Despite many complaints, the city refuses to build garbage rooms, while fining residents who throw their trash into the street. A municipal spokesperson said there is no reason why residents cannot walk the 75 to 100 meters (250 to 330 feet) to the dumpster or bin nearest their home.

Dan Beit Din, head of the Environmental Protection Ministry’s infrastructure department, wrote to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai last month, explaining that the decision to remove trash cans from the neighborhood caused “terrible damage.” He wrote (in a letter obtained by Haaretz): “Would you be prepared to live in a neighborhood/home without trash cans? Would the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality ever consider leaving residents of the northern neighborhoods without trash cans?”

A Florentin resident recently sued the city, claiming he lived in a street with old buildings that had no place to put a can in the stairwell. Life in Florentin had become insufferable, he complained.

Beit Din’s letter prompted a dialogue between the ministry and the city, including on-site visits. Ministry representatives said they did not find piles of trash in the neighborhood, which they said was very clean. The ministry noted that it would continue to monitor the situation. The municipality commented that it would find specific solutions for residents who did not have easy access to trash cans.

The workers’ call

In most Israeli Arab cities, no designated areas were ever planned in advance for the disposal of or burying of garbage. Most are located in the heart of residential neighborhoods.

Hiba Bawardi, an urban planner at the Arab Center for Alternative Planning in Eilaboun, confirms that the dumpsters’ visibility is a serious problem. “They are too big for the size of the street,” she notes. “They give us dumpsters that take up a lot of space.” Removal, she says, is even more problematic. “Everything is very crowded in Arab cities – and if there’s one thing I remember from childhood, it’s the shouts of sanitation workers calling on neighbors to clear their cars for the garbage truck.”

Recycling bins at the Dolev plant in Kibbutz Dvir, southern Israel.Credit: \ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

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Bawardi says there simply aren’t enough small trash cans in the streets, and instead just a few dumpsters for a number of buildings. “I would get off the bus with a receipt and have nowhere to throw it,” she recounts. “It’s not only a matter of awareness and education, but also infrastructure. Consumption in Arab society is lower than the national average. The problem is the lack of cans. Many more are needed in various sizes. Their location should be appropriate – and I should add that recycling bins are practically nonexistent.”

She says that while education has improved, “they don’t give us tools from above.” She adds, “Every day, I find a problem with budgets or collection, but the council throws its hands up because there is no money.”

Ultra-Orthodox cities like Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh don’t suffer from a lack of trash cans, but rather an excess of trash. (Some Haredim counter that the refuse created by disposable dishes is offset by the water saved from cleaning reusable ones.)

However, Dorit Barak, who conducts tours in Bnei Brak, says that while the city goes to great lengths to improve its appearance – including garbage removal – collecting garbage in the country’s most crowded city “is almost a Sisyphean task.” The number of children in her four-story building has grown to nearly 100, she says, noting that the “garbage room was spilling over with disposable diapers. When the garbage truck emptied the dumpster, there was immediately a need for another truck.”

The sheer number of people demands special garbage-collection logistics, which the municipality makes considerable efforts to do on weekdays and weekends – when the amounts of garbage are “inconceivable,” says Barak. She says the city is cleaner than it used to be, but believes “the amount of trash cans will never suffice to meet the needs.”

Can the situation improve? The visibility of trash cans must change. Building sunken dumpsters like in Jerusalem isn’t sufficient. We need to learn from countries overseas and redesign the bins to function as one compact and neat system, not be a heap of receptacles on the street.

Until then, the authorities would do better to design self-contained recycling points that don’t disturb the urban landscape.

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