Ministries of environment, interior squabble over multi-billion-shekel waste fund

Interior Ministry says takeover of fund for waste management was part of coalition deal; Environment Ministry insists bid not based on any professional considerations

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Cranes lift waste, mostly plastic and paper at the GreenNet recycling plant in Atarot industrial zone, north of Jerusalem, January 25, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)
Cranes lift waste, mostly plastic and paper at the GreenNet recycling plant in Atarot industrial zone, north of Jerusalem, January 25, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)

The government agreed Sunday to drop from its weekly cabinet agenda a controversial Interior Ministry proposal to take over a NIS 3.2 billion ($900 million) fund for waste management from the Environmental Protection Ministry.

In its submission to the cabinet, the Interior Ministry claimed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party, had agreed to transfer control of the Maintenance of Cleanliness Fund as part of their coalition deal, and had the Finance Ministry’s backing to do so.

Under the coalition deal, Shas leader Aryeh Deri was allocated the interior and health ministries, but the High Court has banned him from becoming minister, partly on account of previous graft convictions.

Interior Ministry officials said the transfer of the fund would lead to improved synchronization between the fund and the local authorities, for which it is responsible, and which are expected to construct recycling facilities in the coming years.

The Environmental Protection Ministry, however, hit back, submitting its response to what it called the “takeover proposal.”

A ministry spokeswoman said Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman had “waged war” to get the item removed from the cabinet agenda and that “intense negotiations” would be held in the coming days.

The Dudaim dump site, the biggest landfill in Israel, near the city of Rahat in southern Israel, seen on August 10, 2016. (Yaniv Nadav/Flash90)

The Interior Ministry’s move comes hot on the heels of Finance Ministry attempts to weaken the Environmental Protection Ministry’s role in planning big infrastructure projects in fields such as energy and transportation.

Environmental Protection Ministry officials said that the Interior Ministry lacked the professional knowledge to manage Israel’s waste policy and had made no attempt to discuss the matter before bringing it for a cabinet vote.

Environmental Protection Ministry Director General Gideon Samet said the ministry’s responsibility for waste management ranged from regulation, supervision, and enforcement to sharing professional knowledge and financial support for developers and local authorities working in the field.

Nobody in waste management thought that the Interior Ministry’s proposal was based on professional considerations, he charged, adding that if the Interior Ministry took over the cash, it would not be invested in national infrastructure, but in “other places,” whose connection with infrastructure was “unclear.”

In this Tuesday, March 13, 2018 photo, garbage is piled in a landfill at Kibbutz Tzeelim in southern Israel. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The fund was established decades ago and is financed mainly by a levy on local authorities for the waste they send to landfill. This raises around NIS 500 million ($140 million) per year, providing the only source of money for reducing landfill, which currently emits eight to ten percent of the country’s global warming emissions, and establishing a recycling system nationwide.

A further NIS 40 million ($11.2 million) per year comes from a levy on plastic bags and is used to further reduce plastic bag use and to implement the Clean Air Act, while NIS 10 million ($2.8 million) is generated annually from various fines and court orders and is used for enforcement and prosecutions. A varying amount, which totaled NIS 40 million last year, comes from fining drinks companies that have not met their bottle collection and recycling targets. This is used to promote the bottle deposit law.

At present, the fund is managed by a seven-member board — the Environmental Protection Ministry’s director general, who chairs meetings, two additional ministry officials, two Finance Ministry officials, and two representatives of the public nominated by the ministry — one representing local government, the other NGOs.

The Interior Ministry is pressing for the addition of four officials from the ministry, including the director general, and for four representatives of the public. Two of the latter would be chosen by the Knesset Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, and two by the Interior Ministry. The directors general of the interior and environment ministries would jointly chair meetings.

A supermarket worker packing plastic bags at the Rami Levy supermarket in Talpiot, Jerusalem, September 3, 2013. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Environmental Protection Ministry’s management of the fund was criticized by the State Comptroller last year (in Hebrew).

A report, based on research carried out in 2021, said that NIS 3.22 billion ($907 million) had accumulated in the fund, and yet just 36.9% had been spent between 2007 and 2019, with the ministry failing to check the effectiveness of its allocations.

Asked why so much money had accrued in the fund, the Environmental Protection Ministry told The Times of Israel that the development of alternatives to landfill took a long time because they required allocation of land, planning, and construction, and generated objections, sometimes from local authorities themselves.

In 2019, Israeli municipalities were still sending 77% of their waste to landfill, compared with an average of 42% across OECD countries during the same year, according to the State Comptroller’s report.

An orange bin for recycling containers and wrappers appears next to a paper recycling container (center) and a bin for glass, at Hatulot Square in downtown Jerusalem, on November 27, 2022. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

While the landfill levy had increased by 987% from 2007 to 2020, landfill had decreased by just 3% between 2007 and 2019.

The comptroller noted that some NIS 1.66 billion ($470 million) had even been transferred to the Finance Ministry for purposes unconnected to the environment.

In June 2020, then-environmental protection minister Gila Gamliel set a target of reducing the amount of waste sent to landfills from 80% percent to 20% by 2030.

In 2021, the government set national targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to a low-carbon economy, determining that emissions from solid waste should fall by 47% by 2030, compared with 2015.

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