Cabinet votes to scrap disposable plastic tax, a demand of the Haredi community

With ultra-Orthodox using disproportionate amount of single-use tableware, ministers agree to seek a less costly alternative to reduce single-use plastic

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Disposable plastic tableware for sale at a supermarket in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Disposable plastic tableware for sale at a supermarket in Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, October 27, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The cabinet took the controversial step Sunday of scrapping a tax hike on disposable plastic goods imposed by the previous government, fulfilling a Haredi coalition demand.

But it also voted to seek a better solution to reduce the use of such plastic that would be acceptable to all.

Israel is the second biggest consumer per capita of single-use plastic in the world, and 90 percent of its beach trash is plastic. Plastics that end up in the seas and ocean are an increasingly common problem, killing maritime wildlife, contaminating fish and seafood entering the food chain, and leading to hundreds of millions of dollars of loss in tourism and maritime-related industries.

In November 2021, the government raised the cost of disposable plastic plates, bowls, cups, and straws by NIS 11 ($3.20) per kilogram (2.2 pounds), in a move hailed by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

According to ministry figures, sales of these items dipped by nearly 40 percent between November 2021 and December last year.

But the move raised the ire of the ultra-Orthodox community, where large families are common and where disposable plastic use is disproportionately high, leading to claims that the tax rise was aimed at harming them.

Plastic waste discarded on a beach in Israel. (Screenshot)

Reversing the hike was included in the government’s coalition deal with Haredi parties, to the chagrin of the environmental lobby, and incoming Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) ordered officials to deal with the issue as soon as he entered the Finance Ministry earlier this month.

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman speaks at the Environment 2050 conference in Tel Aviv, January 17, 2023. (Liat Mandel)

On Sunday, new Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman (Likud) voted against the Smotrich move, saying she had studied the issue and come to understand the “huge” environmental and health-related damage of disposable plastic use.

She argued that the tax raise should not be abolished until a suitable alternative had been found, but was overruled.

“We promised and we fulfilled,” Smotrich said, adding, “The fight against the cost of living is a fight we all are waging.”

The move is pending Knesset approval.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a Finance Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on January 10, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Silman has said the government will work to formulate the best alternative possible.

From the very start, she charged, Israel should have instituted a “gradual process” to reduce disposable plastic, rather than impose a decision that “arouses antagonism toward a particular population.”

She added that alternatives might include subsidizing dishwashers “in an extensive way,” as the ministry is doing in kindergartens to discourage the use of throwaway tableware.

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