Slowly, Israelis Embrace Recycling
Tue, 08/16/2011
Israel Correspondent
can be found on many Israeli street corners, especially in the big cities. Photos by Michele Chabin
can be found on many Israeli street corners, especially in the big cities. Photos by Michele Chabin

Jerusalem — Due to the severe drought that has gripped the Middle East for much of the past decade, the saving of water has been drummed into the Israeli consciousness.

During the warm months it is forbidden to water gardens during daylight hours, and hosing down a car is prohibited any time of day.

On a national level, the government recycles more water — 75 to 80 percent — than any other country. Private and business consumption decreased during the past year, after the Water Authority increased the cost of water.

Given Israelis’ sensitivity to the water crisis, it might be assumed that they are equally enthusiastic about recycling other materials.

Unfortunately that’s not yet the case, though things are improving.

Water aside, the overall recycling rate in Israel has grown from a paltry 3 percent in the early 1990s to 21 percent in 2008, according to a 2009 report by the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, which surveys recycling plants. That’s considerably lower than rates in the United States where, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2009 just under 34 percent of waste was recovered and recycled or composted; 11.9 percent was burned at combustion facilities, and the remaining 54.3 percent was disposed of at landfills.

The ministry attributes the relatively low recycling rate to a number of factors, including the low cost of landfilling; the lack of appropriate local and national infrastructure; and consumer bias against items made from recycled materials.

Even so, Israeli environmentalists say there have been some major victories. There is now a law requiring the recycling of tires, and another that allocates money collected from the Landfill Levy Law to local authorities to carry out recycling projects and to create of infrastructure.

“Israel is catching up to the Western world, and is a clear leader in the Middle East” says Karin Kloosterman, editor of the Green Prophet website, which focuses on environmental projects in the region. “There is new legislation coming in requiring people to sort wet and dry waste, and it will be sorted at source.”

If the bill is enacted, “I believe Israel will be leagues ahead of most American states.”

There is, Kloosterman said, “a growing awareness” because Israelis “like to be in the know.” They travel abroad widely after serving in the army, do post-docs in Western countries, “and they’re eager to catch up with what they see as a social imperative.”

Kloosterman said many of the new environmental initiatives in Israel are being spearheaded by Western immigrants who view recycling as second nature.

“Look at any strong green NGO in Israel and you’ll likely find an American founded it, or is on the board,” she said.

Regardless of their backgrounds, Israeli environmentalists are working hard, mostly on the grassroots level, to enlighten both the public — especially children — and local authorities, about Israel’s scant natural resources and the importance of recycling or reusing them.

“Water recycling in Israel grew because of necessity,” says Brooklyn native Carmi Wisemon, executive director of Sviva Yisrael. He spends his days educating schoolchildren about the “three R’s” — Reducing, Reusing and Recycling.

Through fun, hands-on projects that combine classroom workshops with Internet-based interaction with their teachers and local and international students, the kids learn how, for example, purchasing food grown or manufactured close to home can reduce their family’s carbon footprint.

“Once the students become aware of the many ways they can protect the environment, they eagerly participate in the recycling projects we introduce them to,” Wisemon said.

While education about recycling is vital, Wisemon said, insufficient progress will be made unless the government does more to enforce both the Depost Law, which is designed to help citizens easily cash in bottles; and the Packaging Law, which was passed to encourage manufacturers to recycle more of their packaging materials.

Even without full enforcement, Israelis recycled 15.2 million plastic bottles in May 2011, a 26 percent jump over May 2010, according to ELA, the company that collects the bottles on behalf of drink manufacturers from 13,000 recycling bins around the country.

Wisemon, whose program has grown to include 12 schools in Israel, 12 schools in the U.S., and one in South Africa, is hopeful that Israelis will soon be at the forefront of efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle, much the way they are innovators in hi tech and other areas.

After all, Israel is the country where drip irrigation — which maximizes water use and minimizes waste — was invented. In addition, Yoav Avinoam creates furniture from sawdust, which he combines with resins and places in molds.

Shaul Lapidot, a doctoral student, and his laboratory colleagues at Hebrew University’s faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, recently developed a way to turn paper-mill fibers – half of which are ordinarily washed away in the paper-making process — into an ecologically friendly foam. Foams are used in the manufacture of car interiors and furniture, and serve as a core material in “sandwich” panels “to achieve high strength, weight reduction, energy dissipation and insulation,” a university announcement explained.

“We’re producing more waste than ever,” says Wisemon, “and we’re developing the means to deal with it.”