Fridge recycling heats up, but most old appliances still end up in landfills
Lack of regulations or enforcement allows companies to fudge official reports and avoid paying for disposal, with goods still being smuggled to Palestinians for burning
The Environmental Protection Ministry recently launched a NIS 2.5 million ($680,000) campaign to ramp up the recycling of electrical and electronic appliances and batteries.
Funded mainly by the Justice Ministry from proceeds of class action suits on behalf of the public, the campaign urges Israelis to think twice about whether they need to replace an appliance, and guides them on disposal or recycling should they decide that they do need something new.
But industry insiders warn that an information campaign will have little effect unless the government enforces a law passed requiring retailers to collect and recycle old appliances, introduces regulations to clarify exactly what can be recycled and how, acts to ensure that all recycling facilities protect the environment, and clamps down on the illegal smuggling of appliances to the Palestinian West Bank. There, Palestinians burn them on open fires to extract metals, seriously threatening public health on both sides of the Green Line.
E-waste, which contains toxic materials such as lead, mercury, cadmium, and flame retardants, represents just three percent of all refuse but creates 70% of waste-generated pollution, according to Gadi Reichman, chairman and CEO of All Trade, an Israeli recycling plant for small electric and electronic appliances based in an Israeli industrial site in the West Bank. The ratio holds true on both the local and global levels, he said.
All Trade has partnered with Electra, one of Israel’s major suppliers of electrical home appliances and air conditioners, to build a new recycling factory just outside Sderot in southern Israel for large domestic appliances. The factory opened in January.
The plant will eventually recycle everything from washing machines and dryers to dishwashers.
But it is starting with fridges and air conditioners, appliances that need special treatment to ensure that when taken apart, global warming gases within them are not released into the atmosphere.
Some 400,000 fridges and one million air conditioning units are sold in Israel each year, according to Environmental Protection Ministry estimates.
According to a ministry statement, the as yet “unaudited median data” received for 2022 showed that most refrigerators never made it to proper recycling sites.
The Environmental Protection Ministry’s new campaign reminds Israelis that if they do decide to buy a large appliance, the store is obliged to take an old appliance of similar size and weight from the buyer’s home, without charge, and regardless of where it was acquired.
It has also asked consumers to report stores that refuse to do so.
Those who want to dispose of an old appliance without buying a new one are advised to contact their local authority, or the state-appointed waste corporation active in the area: either the Israel Electronics Recycling Corporation, better known by its Hebrew acronym M.A.I., or Ecommunity.
Old household batteries, the campaign notes, can be returned to any store, wherever they were originally purchased.
“In 2021 alone, 99,000 tons of electronic waste were collected, of which 20,000 tons were collected as part of the removal of old [products] for new,” Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman said recently.
The campaign is part of a wider ministry effort to place a renewed focus on the recycling of so-called white goods, an industry term for large domestic appliances like fridges, freezers, washing machines and dryers.
Earlier this year, it warned recycling yards that they could be fined NIS 649,330 ($180,000) if found to be working without equipment and facilities that are meant to protect the environment.
If not treated properly, a single fridge could emit the equivalent of 4.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the same as a car driving 17,300 kilometers (10,800 miles), according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Some castoffs contain chlorofluorocarbon and hydrochlorofluorocarbon-based refrigerants that were banned in Europe and the US in the 1990s after scientists discovered that they were damaging the ozone layer that protects Earth from ultraviolet radiation.
End of the line
Near Sderot, All Trade and Electra’s new NIS 30 million ($8.3 million) recycling plant is equipped to recycle 300,000 fridges annually and expects to end the current year having recycled 15,000 of them, along with 5,000 air conditioners, Reichman said.
At the hangar-like factory, filled with machinery resembling the obstacle course in a Mouse Trap game, old fridges and air conditioning units — the latter mainly production line rejects — are piled up for recycling.
The oil and the gases — among them chlorofluorocarbons, hydrochlorofluorocarbons and pentane — are removed at the first point along the production line, after which the materials are sent to a sealed drum for separation.
The oil is sold to industry to be reused.
The gas is cleaned, converted into liquid form, and sent to a state-owned facility for hazardous substances in southern Israel to be used in incinerators.
According to factory manager Ohad Naim, plans are afoot to treat the gas so that it can be resold as a coolant.
After removing the oil and gas, workers strip off what they can, from motors and sockets to copper piping, cables, and fans.
The fridges then go up a conveyor belt before dropping into a massive grinder at the rate of one appliance per minute. This reduces each fridge to small pieces, measuring four by four centimeters (roughly 1.5 by 1.5 inches), that contain iron, aluminum, copper, plastic, and insulating polyurethane foam from which the gas has been removed.
The foam, which has a high calorific value, or heat produced by combustion, is converted into pellets, which the factory hopes to sell to the Nesher cement factory near the central city of Ramle for its kilns.
Magnets separate the metals and the plastic into separate sacks to be sold to industries in Israel or overseas. Iron, for example, which accounts for 45% of a fridge’s weight, is sold to Israel’s Yehuda Steel. Copper and aluminum are sold to All Trade, which separates the material and sells it to factories abroad.
The only material sent to landfill, because there is currently nowhere to recycle it in Israel, is glass from the fridge shelves, which according to Reichman is non-polluting.
In 2020, Israelis generated 648.5 kilograms (1,430 pounds) of waste per capita, according to figures gathered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, compared with an OECD average of 533.7 kilograms, or 1,177 pounds.
Over the last couple of decades, Israeli governments have passed a series of laws aimed at encouraging recycling, and local authorities have provided collection facilities for recycling packaging, glass, paper, cardboard, and — in just a few areas — composting organic waste such as food leftovers and yard trimmings, another form of recycling.
But according to the latest figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, of 6.15 million tons of waste generated in Israel in 2021, 4.7 million tons still went to landfills, with just 1.45 million tons, or 23% of the refuse, being recycled, composted or put to some other productive use.
The ministry has developed a strategy aimed at raising that figure to 54% of total urban waste by 2030. But it remains unclear how it will get there.
According to a 2022 Environmental Protection Ministry report relying on figures from 2020, some 155,000 tons of electronic waste are produced in Israel each year, with just under half — some 70,000 tons — being recycled.
In 2012, the Knesset passed the Law for the Environmental Treatment of Electrical and Electronic Equipment and Batteries, which went into effect two years later.
Following the principle of “the polluter pays,” the law obliges the hundreds of importers and manufacturers of electrical, electronic goods, and household batteries to finance the collection and recycling of at least 50% of the total weight of the goods they sell in a year. (For different kinds of batteries, the targets range from 25% to 35%).
The law says appliance sellers must contract with “accredited compliance bodies” for disposal and recycling. Two such entities exist today: the Israel Electronics Recycling Corporation, known by its Hebrew acronym M.A.I., and Ecommunity.
The pair are tasked with coordinating between the importers and manufacturers, who pay the bills, the local authorities, which provide the waste collection facilities, the retailers who pick up old appliances from homes, and dozens of private, licensed recyclers who are paid to break down the old appliances.
Retailers, of which there are thousands, are obliged to take old appliances from customers who buy new, but are not paid to do so.
“They have to find space to store the appliance until one of the corporations can pick it up,” Ecommunity CEO Ronen Yoeli said.
Do they do so? “It may happen in Switzerland, but not here,” he replied.
“They’ll either take it to the nearest municipal waste center, which is fine, as it will make its way to us, or they’ll throw it into the garbage.”
M.A.I and Ecommunity must report on what has been recycled and where to the manufacturers and importers as well as to the ministry.
But the system is dysfunctional.
Other than the law, which contains general instructions and a list of exempted items (from drones to medical equipment), there are no regulations or standards defining what electrical and electronic devices should be recycled and how.
The lack of clarity has led to confusion, enabled some companies that don’t want to pay for recycling to claim that the law doesn’t apply to them, and prompted others to set standards for themselves.
“How do you define a smartphone for the purpose of collecting?” asked M.A.I.’s chief executive officer Dotan Kabak, by way of example. “As a phone or a battery? You can’t do both, because you need to break the phone to get to the battery. We decided it’s a battery.”
M.A.I. recently announced that despite the lack of regulations, it would start rolling out special recycling receptacles for lithium batteries used in bicycles and scooters. While the law was expanded a few years ago to place the responsibility for recycling on importers and local manufacturers of electric bikes, scooters and their batteries, no regulations for the recycling and disposal of lithium-ion batteries were ever formulated, according to Amnon Sharoor, a founder of M.A.I and a former CEO.
Old and damaged batteries of this kind can be dangerous. Over the past year, according to M.A.I., six people in Israel were killed and hundreds injured in battery-related fires.
The batteries that M.A.I. plans to collect will be sent to a sorting facility in an Israeli-controlled part of the West Bank, which is basically beyond the reach and remit of the Environmental Protection Ministry. There, the batteries will be prepared, packed, and sent in special containers to recycling plants in Europe.
Electric car batteries are still excluded from the law, but that has not stopped Colmobil, a vehicle import arm of ICL, and EMS Metals, a waste recycler, from announcing plans for a factory that will recycle lithium-ion batteries from EV cars.
The ministry is organizing roundtable discussions with industry representatives on regulations, but there is no timetable for when the rules will be finalized.
A ministry spokesperson told The Times of Israel that Israel’s 2012 legislation was based on European law, so officials are examining the relevant European regulations in place now to update the law.
The European standards clarify the rules on everything from collecting, weighing, storing, treating, transporting, and tracking waste, to working with hazardous waste, removing contaminants, and training and protecting employees.
There’s no love lost between M.A.I and Ecommunity.
M.A.I. has trumpeted the Sderot plant, in which it owns a small stake. The company claims that Ecommunity barely sends in any refrigerators to recycle.
Ecommunity maintains that the factory constitutes a monopoly, was unnecessarily expensive to build, is too costly to use, and creates pollution as a result of all the trucks that have to drive to southern Israel with old appliances.
Research carried out for Ecommunity by DHV MED, an Israeli environmental engineering consulting firm, found that household fridges last 12 to 15 years and that only 5% of those available for recycling still contained the harmful chlorofluorocarbons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons that the factory was designed to treat.
Ecommunity claims most fridges can be satisfactorily dealt with in plants that would cost around NIS 2 million ($550,000) to build and equip. It says that several such plants should be created all over the country to cut transport times and distances.
But according to M.A.I.’s Kabak, a high percentage of refrigerators have problematic gases requiring specialized treatment. The prices, he said, are average for the market.
Both companies compete with each other for business, setting their own fees and attempting to undercut each other when annual customer contracts are signed each November. The ensuing price war ultimately deprives both of operating funds, Ecommunity’s Yoeli said.
They are further harmed by the fact that smaller companies have not contracted with either of them, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Some 20 big importers and manufacturers are responsible for 80% of the appliances and batteries that are being recycled, by weight, the ministry says, with the smaller companies attempting to hide behind them and avoid paying for recycling.
Yoeli told The Times of Israel that all imports were easily trackable through customs registries, meaning the authorities could make sure appliances entering the country were registered and would one day be recycled.
“Importers will always see this (payment) as just another tax, a punishment,” he said. “The customs authorities should refuse to release goods until they’ve seen a document proving that the importer has signed up with us or with M.A.I.”
Yoeli is currently working with importers who do pay to form a lobby that will press the Finance Ministry to step in and act.
He also hopes to reach and convince manufacturers to pay their dues through the Manufacturers Association of Israel.
A different sort
To date, 204 out of 251 local and regional councils have contracted with one of the organizations — 124 with Ecommunity and 80 with M.A.I., according to figures provided by the two companies.
The collection bins provided by the two corporations and distributed by the local authorities are not designed to take large appliances. Israelis who get this far are more likely to dump the appliance next to the bin.
Last year, the ministry estimated that some 50 electronic waste treatment sites in Israel were not regulated or only partially regulated via its business permits.
Industry insiders describe yards that crush fridges without removing the harmful chemicals within the insulation materials, polluting the air.
There are a handful of modern recycling plants, but most of those with Environment Ministry business licenses, containing what are very basic environmental standards, are low-tech operations where parts are sorted and piled up to be sold.
M.A.I. is trying to get the recycling companies it works with to automate because hand-sorting wastes time and resources, Kabak told The Times of Israel.
“The generations are changing, and the younger ones are open to change,” he said, but regulations would make the task much easier.
Junk in the trunk
Until a few years ago, scrap dealers would regularly pass through neighborhoods in donkey carts or sputtering vans calling out for alte Sachen –“old things” in Yiddish.
Today, the rag and bone men can be seen poking around dumpsters, recycling bins and trash yards for items that can be stripped for parts or refurbished and sold.
Yoeli refers to these people as members of a third, unofficial, compliance body.
“It’s not worth us sending out a van when we know that the appliance will disappear with the alte Sachen people 15 minutes before we get there. We prefer to pick up from people’s homes.”
At least some of the e-waste collected in Israel is thought to make its way into the Palestinian West Bank, where it is burned to make it easier to extract valuable raw metals.
The practice can be lucrative. Cables contain much-sought-after copper, for instance, which sells for around $9,000 a ton. But it can also be deadly, generating highly harmful toxic smoke.
Both Israeli and Palestinian law bans the transfer of Israeli waste to the West Bank, but the shipments are ongoing, as a Times of Israel investigation in January 2022 showed.
Some Israeli companies and individuals save thousands of shekels or even make a profit by sending their waste to smugglers who sell it on to Palestinian scrapyards. Last year, the Environmental Protection Ministry estimated that 20,000 to 50,000 tons of e-waste likely reached the West Bank, passing through unregulated hands or ending up in landfills.
The burning seriously endangers public health on both sides of the Green Line. In the Lachish region, residents complain of choking smoke from e-waste fires burning around the Hebron Hills just a few kilometers away in the southern West Bank.
Deficit of data
Asked how many fridges, freezers, and air conditioners were recycled last year, Ecommunity would only say “tens of thousands of tons,” with a spokesman explaining that the company was obliged only to send precise figures to the ministry.
M.A.I.’s Kabak said that according to preliminary figures, it recycled 2,633 tons of fridges and around 220 tons of home air conditioners last year.
The Environmental Protection Ministry hopes that regulations will make it much harder for those who think they can cut costs by sending appliances to the cheapest, least sophisticated facilities and reporting to the ministry that they’ve been recycled — a practice criticized in the ministry’s last audit of Ecommunity and M.A.I covering the years 2016 to 2018. (It is currently working on an audit for 2019 to 2020).
The owners of the new factory near Sderot hope that clearer rules will put modern plants like theirs in a leading position. Kabak said they would also help put pressure on low-tech waste treatment companies to upgrade their equipment and work practices.
But according to all those who spoke to The Times of Israel, progress will be hampered until the authorities clamp down on the burning issue of illegal dumping in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.
Part of this will involve informing the public about the importance of recycling, such as via the Environmental Protection Ministry’s new outreach campaign. Over a decade after the appliance recycling law was passed, many remain ignorant of the need to not just throw old electronics into a landfill.
Asked by this reporter what he does with old appliances, a visiting technician said, “I put it outside the house and pay someone a few shekels to pick it up. He sells the metal.”
What about sending them for recycling?
“I’ve never heard anything about that,” came his reply.
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