Every holiday in Israel has a different smell, from the matzah balls of Passover to the fried latkes and doughnuts of Hanukkah to the smoky bonfires of Lag B’Omer. Israel’s Independence Day also has an unmistakable smell, as families stream into the country’s parks and fire up their grills, filling the air with the scent of sizzling meat from Eilat to Metullah.
Nitai Zecharya, the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael/Jewish National Fund forest manager for the Ben Shemen and Canada Parks in the center of the country, loves watching families frolic beneath the tall pine trees as barbecue smoke swirls among the trunks. But he does not love the eight or nine trash trucks filled to the brim that he needs in order to clear out a veritable mountain of disposable plates, utensils, and trash from the single day in the Ben Shemen park. The park is equidistant from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, making it a popular spot.
“On Israel’s Independence Day there are more than 100,000 people [in this park],” said Zecharya. “It’s like the amount of trash that a city makes. And it’s not like people come and eat sushi. It’s a barbecue. So it’s a city’s worth of trash, on a day with a very intense amount of trash.”
Although most of the country is off of work, for Zecharya and his staff, Independence Day represents one of their busiest days of the year. “It’s a day that all of our workers are on, it’s like an army operation,” said Zecharya. “In every area we have an assigned crew with a truck that hands out trash bags and a flyer explaining what to do.”
Zecharya said that his workers might be able to keep up if all the families heeded their requests to only leave trash in designated bins, or, if the bins are full, in closed plastic bags next to the bins. No one should have to walk more than 70 meters to find a trash bin in Ben Shemen Park’s picnic areas, he noted.
But many people can’t be bothered to properly dispose of their trash, Zecharya explained.
“Lots of people think they can put trash in a bag and leave it in the parking lot or somewhere else; they think they did their work,” he said. “At night, the animals come and smell the food inside and tear up the bag. It can be terrible. It’s a question of them walking another few dozen meters to put it in the trash bin. But they didn’t, and now it’s up to us to spend hours cleaning up the entire radius.”
“It’s very Israeli — this idea that something was food a few minutes ago, but now it’s not, and now someone else needs to deal with it,” said Zecharya. “On Independence Day we can’t get to every single spot. We’re doing our best to pass out bags, but we can’t be everywhere. There’s a limit to how much trash we can get to in a single day.”
Zecharya said the park tries to limit the amount of trash people produce by moving the parking areas a bit farther from the picnic area. This means people need to think twice about everything they bring because they need to carry it. When people can simply drive up to the picnic area, the trash results are disastrous, he said.
The JNF/KKL park also has roving pickup trucks trying to stay on top of the trash problem throughout the day, as well as employees who go around talking to barbecuers to remind them to pick up all of their trash and put it in the bin.
Zecharya said he hasn’t noticed much change in the amount that Israelis litter over the years, despite public education and outreach from environmental groups. “Per capita, it’s about the same,” he said. “But because the amount of people is growing, with the same percentage of people leaving trash, there’s more trash to deal with.”
This week, the Central Bureau of Statistics announced that Israel’s population crossed 9 million for the first time.
The Council for a Beautiful Israel recommends bringing multi-use rather than disposable utensils to Independence Day picnics to cut down on waste. It also recommends people pack up their trash and take it home where they can separate recyclables like plastic bottles, containers, and compost.
Environmental organization Zalul noted that Israel is the country with the second-highest use of disposable plastic plates and utensils in the world, in absolute terms. The country uses approximately 4.5 billion disposable plates and utensils every year, according to Maya Jacobs, the CEO of Zalul. This amount is second only to disposable use by the United States, whose population is 36 times bigger than Israel. Cutting down on the use of disposable plates and utensils is one of the best ways to decrease the amount of trash generated on Israel’s Independence Day.
The Council for a Beautiful Israel also encourages people to make sure that barbecues are properly tended, including ensuring that there is a safe place to dispose of the hot charcoal at the end of the meal. Fires on the ground are not allowed in Israel’s parks, because they can burn and destroy shallow tree roots, Zecharya said. People are only allowed to barbecue with barbecues raised off of the ground by at least a few centimeters, or with gas stoves.
The Nature and Parks Authority echoed these sentiments, reminding Israelis not to burn paper towels or toilet paper in an effort to “clean up” the area. “Years of experience have taught us that most fires in open areas are the result of human action, usually by carelessness, not paying attention, or not understanding the dangers,” said Nature and Parks Authority spokesman Yaniv Cohen.
He stressed that fires and barbecues are only allowed in marked areas. “If it doesn’t have a clear sign saying that fires are allowed, then it is not permitted,” he said.
Zecharya said that people who litter cause damage to the parks that reverberates throughout the year.
“We really need to explain to people the difference between trash that is in the bins and we’ll take it away, and trash that is strewn across the entire site, which takes us hours to clean up,” he said. “We really try to explain to them, ‘This is the money we have, if we waste it on this, then we won’t have money for other things.’”
Zecharya said about a quarter of his budget is dedicated to trash removal. “Of course we’ll always have a budget for trash removal, but it could go for more bike paths or hiking paths or taking care of trees or putting in water fountains,” he said.
But the most heartbreaking, Zecharya said, is the impact littering has on the park’s animals, who tear through trash that the park workers can’t get to during the day.
“In all of Ben Shemen park, whenever you see animal feces, there’s always parts of a plastic bag,” said Zecharya. “Wherever you see [feces] of a jackal or a fox or even things I don’t recognize, there’s always a bit of plastic bag in it. They can’t eat without eating plastic. Plastic shouldn’t be on the menu for any animal.”