The Minister for Environmental Destruction

All over Europe people know it is necessary to keep things clean and to recycle; otherwise we will drown one day in our garbage. But what about Israel?

It is rather depressing to return from a vacation in Europe. In every country on the Continent, whether it is Slovenia or France, the issue of cleanliness and the environment has an important place on the public agenda.

Citizens separate their garbage at home and then drive to the nearest corner to drop their bags in the recycling bins there: one for white paper, one for brown paper, a third for plastics, the fourth for glass and a fifth for organic trash.

All over Europe people know it is necessary to keep things clean and to recycle; otherwise we will drown one day in our garbage.

And what about Israel? We are light-years behind them. Here the streets are filthy, the big green garbage bins are disgusting and overflow on the streets, dogs leave their "mines" without any protest, recycling is almost nonexistent and there is no separating types of refuse.

If that's not enough, Gideon Ezra, the minister for environmental protection (whom is he actually protecting?), decided recently to oppose the bill expanding the bottle deposit law.

This law tells the story of pressure groups in Israel. After years of struggle the Knesset passed the Deposit Law in 2001, which required soft drink manufacturers to recycle 65 percent of all bottles of less than a liter and a half. A recycling corporation was established to implement the law and a 25-agorot deposit was set for every drink container, to make it worthwhile to return the bottles to the stores.

It doesn't work perfectly: It is impossible to return the bottles at small shops and kiosks, supermarket chains have not installed automatic return machines in their branches, and the recycling corporation has not recycled the quantities it was required to. Still, there is a noticeable improvement in cleanliness and the environment. Until 2001 city streets, parks and public places were littered with small bottles and cans - and now they are gone.

But the same law also determined that the deposits would not be levied on big bottles of a liter and a half or larger. This reservation came at the bidding of the Shas party. Shas' MKs claimed that requiring deposits on one-and-a-half-liter bottles would hurt poor families; it would be hard for them to return the empties "since most of them do not have cars." This is a very strange stance. If we are talking about poor families, why are they buying carbonated drinks with harmful food colorings and additives: It is both unhealthy and expensive.

And how is it that they have the strength to carry the full bottles home from the store, but they don't have the time or the strength to return the empties?

This is nothing but a case of other interests, foreign to the question. The soft drink manufacturers did not spare any effort in their attempts to persuade influential rabbis with promises of contributions and grants to institutions in Shas' good graces.

The upshot is that family-sized bottles were removed from the framework of the law, even though they make up half of all drink containers.

This serious failure can be seen in the streets, parks and a few streams: Large bottles are strewn everywhere. And, as is known, it takes 900 years for plastic to decompose.

All along Ezra and his ministry experts supported extending the law. But soft drink makers kept up the pressure, and overnight Ezra changed his position. He decided to retreat from supporting expansion of the deposit law, and adopted the position of the drink manufacturers and the recycling corporation they own.

Ezra agreed to lower the target for recycling small drink bottles from 85 percent, according to the new law, to only 75 percent. He also exempted the drink manufacturers from direct responsibility for collecting the bottles, and even accepted their cynical proposal that they themselves would act to expand voluntary recycling of big bottles by seting up more collection cages in cities.

So not only will the recycling target be reduced, and not only will the manufacturers no longer have any responsibility, but the public will also suffer from thousands more collection bins on city streets, which will also turn into concentrations of filth and garbage. There is nothing as ugly in any Western country. It is not efficient, does not bring about the desired level of recycling and will not prevent the continued littering of family-sized bottles.

Now when we hike and see the big bottles tossed out in parks and streams, we will know to whom to complain: Gideon Ezra, the minister for environmental protection.