Saying Goodbye to Plastic: The Israelis Who Live Without Generating Almost Any Trash

The average Israeli family produces 612 kilos of garbage a year, but more and more of their compatriots have decided that there is an alternative

Shalom and Desi Or. 'Protecting the earth is the most basic thing in being a human being.'
Emil Salman

The packaging from a bag of Bamba peanut snack food, another from frozen peas, two empty cans that had contained coconut cream, an empty tahini jar and packaging from blackberries and cane sugar. That was all of the trash that produced in a two-week period from the kitchen of the Or family – Shalom, his wife, Desi and their year-old daughter, Gaia. All of their other garbage was organic, and they took it to their neighborhood compost bin.

The trash that they produce is nothing compared to the average Israeli garbage can. The average Israeli generates an average of 1.7 kilograms (nearly 4 pounds) of garbage a day. That translates into 612 kilograms (nearly 1,350 pounds) a year.

It consists of two types of material – food scraps and discarded packaging. The scraps account for the weight of the trash while the packaging is the main factor in its volume.

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Even people who make the effort not to use disposable items will find their garbage can filled mostly with plastic of various kinds: yogurt containers, the thin plastic boxes that cherry tomatoes come in, thicker plastic packaging from mushrooms and plastic jars from tahini or mayonnaise. Then there are the milk cartons (the insides of which are plastic-coated) and the plastic screw tops on the cartons.

In addition, typically there are plastic bags, plastic lids, plastic netting from sacks of potatoes, Styrofoam plates, plastic wrap used to wrap fruit and meat and the packaging from rice, pasta and beans. Even when fruit and vegetables don’t come pre-packaged, a plastic bag is usually the first item that Israelis reach for at the greengrocer, the open-air market or supermarket fruit and vegetable stand.

A quick glance at supermarket shelves reveals that there is almost nothing there that can be purchased without plastic packaging. And beyond the confines of our kitchens, there is more plastic. It’s impossible to buy shampoo that isn’t sold in a plastic bottle. And toilet paper, printer paper, toys, batteries and electronics all come wrapped in thick layers of plastic.

By a rough estimate, at any given moment, most Israelis have hundreds of items of disposable plastic that serve a purpose for a short period of time – days or a few weeks – but the life after death of the plastic refuse is nearly eternal. In the best case, the packaging will be sent to be recycled and reincarnated as poor quality plastic that in turn will end up in the garbage dump. More likely, however, it will go directly to the dump, polluting the ground and the air for centuries.

Zero Waste disciples

Despite a difficult start, there is an expanding community of Israelis who are trying to live without generating waste, or almost without it. And faced with their packaging from Bamba and frozen peas, the members of the Or family don’t give themselves a perfect grade on that score. But from conversations with many Zero Waste disciples, the Ors appear to be nearly champions when it comes to curbing their trash. Like most Zero Waste advocates, they are vegan and pursue a minimalist lifestyle, taking the view that items that accumulate at home are a burden and are generally not needed.

As a result, their living room is bare of furniture and the counter top in their kitchen is devoid of containers and jars. Dassi says her wardrobe consists of 30 items of clothing and footwear. The baby’s diapers are cloth and most of the shelves and the few cabinets in their home are empty.

Achieving such a low level of waste production takes effort. The Ors try to buy their food at the small number of stores in Jerusalem that sell in bulk and take it home in reusable canvas bags.

Reusable items at the Or family home.
Emil Salman

Their fruit and vegetables are delivered from an organic farm. Dassi makes the soap (for which lye and essential oils are the main ingredients) and she also makes the family’s laundry detergent (baking soda baked in the oven) – from scratch. The deodorant and toothpaste consumed in the Or household are also homemade. Their toothbrushes are made out of wood and their Sabbath candles are produced from olive oil.

American and Argentinian

The couple came into this world without waste from different directions. Shalom grew up in an Orthodox family from the United States and finds motivation for the lifestyle that he has chosen from Judaism. “The Holy One, blessed be He, put us in the Garden of Eden and told us that our role is to protect the earth. That’s even before we are Jews. It is the most basic thing in being a human being.”

His wife, Dassi, immigrated to Israel from Argentina, where she lived in an environmental commune that generated no waste at all. “I used to be more extreme. For years, I didn’t eat halvah because it came in plastic,” she recounts.

When the couple met in Jerusalem, it was inevitable. “A friend said to me at a Friday night dinner: ‘You are vegan, you ride a bicycle, you’re a yoga instructor and you compost. There’s someone just like you. Do you know her?’” Shalom related. Their wedding was vegan – and waste-free, of course.

“The only beverages served were wine and water, without plastic bottles. All the food scraps were composted,” Shalom explained. And the leftover food was donated to a club for soldiers without family in Israel.

“I had even received the aluminum foil that wrapped the glass that I broke at the [wedding] ceremony from someone who had already used it. We thought about everything so that the day would be the most special day in our life and would not harm the world,” he declared.

Nearly impossible in outlying areas

There are other waste fighters in Israel who aspire to the Or family’s standards. Esti Hermesh, 33, of Ashkelon had lived in an ecological community in Costa Rica. When she came to Israel, she was appalled by state of the sanitation in public spaces.

Esti Hermesh with her partner and son in their Ashkelon home.
Ilan Assayag

“I went to the beach on a Saturday afternoon and I found myself stepping on piles of disposal tableware.” It was a traumatic event, she said. “I had two alternatives: either getting depressed or doing something. I looked for a way to avoid packaging.”

The realization that we are surrounded by trash led Hermesh to establish the Zero Waste Community Israel website, which promotes efforts to reduce the amount of refuse we generate – from providing reusable drinking cups for events, to developing programs to eliminating disposable utensils from schools, to promoting deliveries of fast food in reusable containers. The change in approach, Hermesh said, is noticeable.

Groceries bought by the Hermesh family, containing zero plastic.
Ilan Assayag

“It’s like it used to be that veganism was something weird and today it no longer is. People are beginning to view it with a lot of admiration,” she says.

Yet like everyone who aims to produce zero waste, she too encounters problems. “There are things that I can’t find in bulk: the gnocchi that my son really likes, tofu. It exists, but it’s not very easy to get,” she said. “You can get [cooking] oil in a glass bottle, but it’s hard to find a place where you can refill it.”

Many people report that, although in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem it is hard to live a trash-free life, in outlying areas of Israel, it becomes almost mission impossible. There are no stores that sell in bulk and there’s also a lack of awareness.

“I live in Tiberias and here products in bulk are less available, so I simply don’t buy them. I don’t buy beverages and I don’t buy candy,” said Alexei Morozov, who is trying to reduce the garbage he generates. And, he adds, his town doesn’t provide bins for organic waste.

“It used to be that everything was in glass containers. You had to clean and return them to the store and you would get a deposit back,” said Daniel Morgenstern, a longtime environmental activist who specializes in the issue of solid waste.

“Pickles, olives, wine, milk and leben [a Middle Eastern cultured dairy product] were all in reusable glass. There were also fairly thick paper bags. Everything started changing in the mid-1960s, with a lag of five or eight years behind the United States,” he recounts.

“It started with drink containers. At first they marketed beverages in glass bottles, but after some of them broke, they shifted to disposable plastic. From there it spread everywhere. This culture of ‘use and throw away’ became the leading culture. And it boosted the economy, but it ruined the environment, increased the amount of garbage and introduced nondegradable substances into it.”

The activists are seeking solutions that will make life easier for people who want to live without generating trash, even in plastic-saturated Israel. Here and there, there are stores in the country that sell unpackaged soap. Next year a new retailer,ReFeel, is due to open, where consumers will be able to fill bottles they bring from home with oil, various soaps, cosmetics and cleaning products. In Europe, similar stores have been widespread since the 1990s.

A spiritual process

Another initiative, called Mimshak (Interface) is a cooperative that packages fair trade natural food for distribution in reusable packaging. Yael Weill, 26, of Even Yehuda, north of Tel Aviv, is involved in the project. “It used to be that when I went shopping with a canvas bag, people didn’t understand, but today they understand more and are nice about it,” she said.

“When I buy a product, I see it as an entirety. The packaging is a part of it. It’s grating to see this when I know it’s harmful and it hits me when I also see that it’s ugly. It’s unpleasant for me to see things that are made of plastic and it’s not pleasant to wear things that are made of plastic.”

Another initiative is Mehapah Yarok, a name that is a play on words, literally meaning “green from the trash” but spelled differently meaning “green revolution.” It was established in Jerusalem to help people install their own composters. So far, 6,500 families have joined the project. Some 4,200 of them regularly separate their organic refuse and compost it.

Jonathan Plitmann, one of the group’s founders, says that with a handful of exceptions, the composting has not been a problem for neighbors and the composters have worked well. “Every family that puts its food scraps into a composter saves 380 kilograms of garbage a year,” he says.

The initiative has been a success since the Jerusalem Municipality adopted it and began providing funding for the non-profit venture.

Ecological ‘tikkun’

Plitmann, like many waste-reduction advocates, has difficulty weaning himself totally off generating trash. “I’m not a typical zero waster,” he said. Using the Hebrew term “tikkun,” repair, which is commonly used to refer to making the world a better place, he declares: “My worldview is that ecological tikkun doesn’t mean becoming a zero carbon emission freak but rather finding the social spaces where you can do tikkun.”

“It’s not easy,” Hermesh chimes in. “Sometimes you are thirsty and hungry and you compromise, but it’s really distressing to put your money into something you’re not comfortable with. Sometimes I go into a supermarket and leave with half of what I wanted.”

For his part, Shalom Or says what other people view as being difficult, he sees as liberating. “People think it’s easier to live with disposables, but when we have to use them, we feel that we have the garbage, that something needs to be cleaned up. It puts toxic things into our lives and it’s a lot easier to live without.”

Plitmann believes there is an additional dimension to a trash-free life, beyond ecological considerations. “When a person is able to deal with his own trash, it also involves a spiritual process. You discover that you can carry out tikkun in the world. It’s no coincidence that many institutions involved in special education and mental health care choose to compost because there’s something there that says that it’s possible to repair and do good.”

For her part, Weill says: “It’s like when a child drops something and thinks it has disappeared. You as an adult know that it hasn’t disappeared, but when you throw something into the garbage, you do think it has disappeared. That’s not how it works. The moment you’ve touched something, you have had an impact on the world.”