Far Fewer Bottles Are Recycled in Israel Than Industry Is Claiming, Report Finds

Beverage companies say figure is 60%, but study puts it at closer to 10%

A recycling receptacle in Tel Aviv
A recycling receptacle in Tel Aviv Eyal Toueg

Every time you toss a plastic bottle into one of those sidewalk recycling bins, you’re scoring a point for the environment – or so you think.

A draft report prepared for the Environmental Affairs Ministry found otherwise. While ELA Recycling Corporation, the company that is responsible for collecting and recycling plastic bottles, claims that 60% of all bottles designated for recycling are in fact recycled the ministry report found the rate was just 10.4%.

The report could verify that only 6% of all designated bottles were recycled in Israel.

If the report’s conclusions are correct, it not only means that hundreds of millions of bottles are not being recycled, or at least not in Israel. It also means that the beverage makers were liable for penalties under the law totaling 80 million shekels ($22.7 million) last year alone.

Since 2001, deposits are collected on all bottles containing less than 1.5 liters of liquid, but under pressure from beverage companies worried about the cost of collecting and recycling the bottles, larger containers were exempted.

Instead, lawmakers eventually demanded that the companies set up a mechanism for consumers to voluntarily put their bottles in street-side recycling bins. ELA – which is jointly owned by four of the biggest beverage companies, Central Bottling (Coca Cola), Jafora Tabori, Tempo and Mei Eden – was required to collect at least 55% of all bottles that they sell and recycle 90% of what they collect.

Under a rule in force since 2010, if ELA collects less than 47% then all bottles sold, the law mandating deposits will go into force and they will face fines of 60 agorot for each bottle under the quota. In 2014, Gilad Erdan, who was then environment minister, agreed to give the industry a two-year grace period to ensure they could meet the standard before being subject to the deposit requirement. The current minister, Zeev Elkin, is thus free to impose it if he so chooses.

That’s a lot of bottles. The Environmental Affairs Ministry report estimated that Israeli beverage companies sold 738 million bottles of 1.5 liters or larger last year. ELA’s reports showed that 445 million were collected, or 60% of the number sold.

But the ministry report could only verify that 277 million were collected, or 37%, and that just 77 million, or 10.4%, were later recycled.

In response ELA said it stood by its figures and said it was discussing the issue with the ministry. For its part the ministry said the report wasn’t final and that was it was seeking responses from the industry.

“Until we complete the examination process, the ministry cannot draw any conclusions as to whether or not the targets were met or any other conclusions,” a spokesman said. “As to enforcing the law, we will act only after the results have been formally submitted and the minister has determined his position based on the data.”

For years, the ministry had been accepting ELA’s declared figures for collection and recycling without verifying. When investigators asked for documented data the company initially refused and then only provided some. Those showed that ELA, which calculates the number of bottles collected by weight not by number, used different methods for making its estimates that significantly raised the number.

One inconsistence, the report found, was regarding the proportion of non-bottle waste deposited in its recycling bins, a figure that ranged from 15% to 25%. A lower figure meant more bottles had been collected, helping ELA meet its minimum.

Another way of massaging the figures, investigators alleged, was by changing the estimated weight of the average bottle, which ranged from 38 to 41 grams. Since ELA was measuring its collections in tons, lighter bottles added up to more bottles.

Other problems the report identified was alleged double counting of bottles as they moved through the chain from collection points to sorting stations and central collection points. Even though large numbers of collected bottles were exported, mainly to Turkey and China, investigators often could not find documentation of the exports.