More Israelis Recycle, but Facilities to Contain Waste Are Lacking

So many more Israelis are now separating their waste that the existing treatment facilities are about to overflow.

For many years, the Environmental Protection Ministry staff’s favorite slide show has been the one that shows data regarding Israeli households that separate their garbage and recycling. Year after year the numbers keep going up, and the presentation shows more and more examples of new, sophisticated facilities for turning recycled materials into sought-after products.

But success can often come back to bite you in the tail. While the amount of households that separate their waste has eclipsed the 300,000 mark, the ministry is scrambling to build facilities that can handle sorting all that waste, and then recycling it.

But now it’s become clear that if sufficient facilities are not opened within the next two years, lots of that recyclable waste will be sent to landfills. If that happens, not only will there be useless garbage going into the ground, but it could also seriously damage public support for separating waste.

Last week, an annual conference organized by Tel Aviv University and the AVIV AMCG management consultancy attended by environmental professionals and experts examined the status of recycling in Israel. A representative of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Avi Radai, presented data on the ministry’s grants totaling hundreds of millions of shekels for projects aimed at sorting waste into wet (mostly discarded food) and dry (packaging and paper) in dozens of regions, as well as other information on small towns that separate their waste.

This month, Kfar Sava became the first large Israeli city (over 100,000 residents) to achieve 100 percent participation in waste separation. Tel Aviv and Haifa, in contrast, still have a way to go, and Jerusalem is still waiting for a local waste separation facility to be built.

But Radai also admitted that the ministry is facing a larger, more complex challenge due to the lack of facilities to receive and process sorted waste, and convert it to energy. Currently there are only a few facilities that can process wet waste and turn it into compost, or gas used to produce electricity. Within two years these few facilities will not be able to handle the amount of waste, as separation becomes more prevalent. According to Environmental Protection Ministry estimations, the organic waste will increase by 25 percent by the end of the decade, in line with population growth and increased consumption.

Compared with countries around the world, Israel is somewhere in the bottom third of European and OECD countries in terms of recycling and producing energy from waste. Currently, Israel recycles 17 percent of urban waste. The Environmental Protection Ministry has set a goal of 50 percent by the end of the current decade.

Within Europe, recycling rates vary greatly. Many countries such as Denmark and Finland recycle just over 20 percent of their waste, but they divert between 40 and 50 percent to energy producing facilities, where the waste is incinerated. Most of these facilities were built about 20 years, ago, and operate according to very strict air pollution standards. In Denmark, only a very small amount of waste is sent to landfills. Germany is the most advanced country in this regard, sending only 1% of its waste to landfills, but incineration facilities are common in Germany as well.

Despite the relative gaps in Israel’s recycling rates, Israel has created a good legal infrastructure, as well as sources of funding that should allow for rapid advancements in this field. The tax implemented on landfill use by the Environmental Protection Ministry is the tool that allows it to grant hundreds of millions of shekels to recycling projects and facilities. With the new law on recycling electronics passed last month, new legislation is now in place requiring Israelis to recycle a significant portion of the packaging, tires and electronic devices that have thus far not been recycled. The ministry’s next moves are advancing legislature that would bring all the current recycling regulations under one law, as well as completely prohibiting the use of landfills, in accordance with the trend in Europe.

“We estimate that the lack of facilities we have to deal with will be in central Israel,” said Radai during the conference. Currently, a large facility is being constructed at Hiriya that will eventually absorb roughly half of all of the waste generated in Greater Tel Aviv, convert it to fuel and transfer part of it to the Nesher cement factory in Ramle. There will still be a need to process a great deal of waste from other cities, however.

The ministry is also proposing constructing a large facility for absorbing and processing waste at the site of a sewage treatment plant near Rishon Letzion. “It’s a facility that could process 1,000 tons of waste per day, and also produce energy from it,” explains Radai.

But these facilities won’t be enough. There is a great deal of difficulty in convincing local authorities to accept waste management facilities in their midst. Kfar Sava is an example. Although it’s a willing participant in the separation program, it refused to build a recycling plant in its industrial park, citing space concerns and possible effects on the surrounding areas.

The most urgent problem, however, is dealing with the organic waste that has already been set aside by hundreds of thousands of Israeli households. Many facilities capable of converting that waste into energy have been shut down recently over licensing issues.

Aside from the challenges, these recycling endeavors could have a very positive effect on the environment, and also encourage development of new products. According to Radai, Israel could produce 600 million shekels per year of raw materials from recycled products, and the ministry estimates that electricity produced from organic waste could supply enough power for 100,000 people.