Israelis yearning to stretch their legs and return to nature following the country’s coronavirus lockdown were greeted not with pristine parkland last month, but rather a trail of trash left by their fellow travelers.
Most Israelis believe the country is too dirty, according to a government survey, but despite years of various plans and ideas, no effort has yet made a serious dent in the littering, leading to frustration among some officials as they try to figure out why and whether there is a cleaner way ahead.
For years, government ministries, local councils, the body responsible for nature reserves and national parks, and a raft of environmental nonprofits have invested time and money in programs to clean up urban and rural spaces and to try to educate Israelis to either throw their refuse into the trash or to take it home.
“There are lots of good intentions but there is not enough education on this subject,” said Blue and White MK Miki Haimovich on Tuesday, at a session of the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee she chairs that had been called to attempt to analyze the issue.
“We see it in the schools, where it starts from kids finishing their meals and not throwing the refuse away properly. There’s no awareness, no personal role modeling. From the point of view of educating our children, it’s not being done.”
“Why is it important to people that their houses are clean but not important that nature looks so dirty?” she asked. “I hike a lot in the country and every time I go out, I’m shocked.”
During the two-hour meeting, Haimovich urged a carrot and stick approach — a forceful, long-running campaign to raise public awareness and the imposing of stiff fines on violators to serve as deterrence to others.
She opened the session by inviting Omer Ziv, a tour guide, who quoted from the blog of a tourist who had hiked along the Israel Trail.
“There is trash everywhere,” the tourist wrote. “People throw their trash onto the ground and in between the rocks.”The worst part is that they don’t bury their feces or toilet paper. If you find a tree and want to sit down in the shade, the likelihood is that you’ll find toilet paper there. I saw more trash in one day than on all my other travels together.”
‘Most Israelis think the country is dirty’
Guy Samet, director general of the Environmental Protection Ministry, said that according to a ministry survey, most Israelis thought the country was dirty, with cigarette butts and boxes and plastic bags singled out as particularly problematic.
The new environmental protection minister, Gila Gamliel, has been pressuring the ministry to focus on making the country cleaner, he added. For years, the ministry has focused on pushing recycling while leaving anti-littering and anti-dumping matters to police enforcement.
Samet said it was important to set cleanliness standards for parks and other areas, to assess the knowledge and tools available to local authorities, to empower them to better enforce the rules against violators, to work out where trash bins were needed and what kind (for recycling), and to increase signage.
He asked Israel Nature and Parks Authority director Shaul Goldstein to explain a joint ministry-INPA plan being drawn up for a massive, national, clean-up day to be financed to the tune of NIS 150 ($43) million from the government’s Fund for the Preservation of Cleanliness, created from landfill dumping charges and cash paid for plastic bags in supermarkets.
The idea is based on a huge campaign during which 50,000 Estonians cleaned up their entire country in five hours.
‘Campaign of the Million’
Plans for the so-called “Campaign of the Million” saw the ministry and INPA turning to multiple bodies before coronavirus set in, Goldstein said. “We approached the Education Ministry, the state lottery, the army, the organization in charge of the roads, the industrialists’ association — and they all agreed to take part,” he continued. “We’ve been looking at PR, at where the trash will be taken to after it’s been separated for recycling. We need to look at the entire chain.”
Haimovich said that local clean-up campaigns took place all the time, but that areas went back to being dirty soon afterwards.
She returned repeatedly to the subject of inspectors and fines. “People only stopped talking on their cellphones in the car once they understood that it could cost them a lot,” she argued.
Youval Arbel of Zalul, which seeks to protect the country’s seas and rivers, recalled an Environmental Protection Ministry experiment in 2009 at two beaches. At one, inspectors explained the importance of keeping the place clean to visitors. At the other, they put up signs warning that violators would be fined NIS 750 ($215). The latter beach ended up much cleaner.
Yael Ilmer of the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel noted that the Estonia campaign was first mounted in 1995 and has had to be repeated since then.
“It’s a process. You can’t see it as a PR campaign or a one-off,” she said. “I’m not opposed to it. But you can’t hang all your hopes on it. In Estonia, it has meant a long process. It needs cooperation with the government. The government must fund it and understand that it’s [a long-term commitment]. It’s a first step. ”
Ilmer singled out three areas that needed tackling: Having the right kind of trash receptacles that didn’t let trash fly out, and regular emptying; enforcement against littering; and a public awareness campaign with a single, clear, countrywide message.
Zalul’s Arbel questioned the wisdom of spending millions of shekels on one big day.
He emphasized the importance of reducing waste from the start, for example expanding the bottle deposit law, which currently applies to small bottles only, to include larger ones. Since the 10 agorot (three cent) fee on plastic bags in large stores was introduced, the percentage of trash they constituted had fallen from 26% in 2016 to 15% last summer.
Yael Ackerman, responsible for environment and agriculture at the Federation of Local Authorities, noted that local authorities were responsible for 85% of open spaces in the country. She thought that the Environmental Protection Ministry should establish an active, enforcement unit, separate from the local authorities, rather than just providing money for “a couple of extra” inspectors.
Eitan Atia, director of the Forum of 15, representing the strongest local authorities in the country, said that local authority inspectors dealt with hundreds of different subjects and that it was “not realistic” to think that the entire inspectorate could be recruited just for cleanliness.
He also noted that that the Fund for the Preservation of Cleanliness from which Guy Samet wants to take NIS 150 million (by changing the law) was set up to establish facilities for recycling and should be used to promote more separation of waste at source. A key to cutting trash was forcing industry to produce less packaging, he said.
Officials from the Education Ministry said that the Environmental Protection Ministry had been funding programs in schools for years, that two million children, from first grade on, were in fact being taught about the need to keep tidy and clean, and that responsibility for the environment was drummed into them once they joined the “Shelach” (Field, Nation, Society) program of field trips and learning about the land in middle and high school.
Haimovich was unimpressed.
Summarizing the session, Haimovich said that the committee wanted part of the funds earmarked for the Operation of a Million to be spent instead on an “aggressive” public awareness campaign, run over a period of time, along the lines of the now almost mythical campaign that stopped Israelis from picking wildflowers and another that convinced them to use safety belts in the back of the car, as well as the front.
She asked the Forum of 15 to supply data on enforcement and how many fines it levied for trash violations, and instructed the committee’s researchers to look for successful models from overseas.
Separate sessions will be scheduled on inspectors and fines, and on the infrastructural improvements needed to clean up up the country.