Israel’s cities might be dotted with colorful bottle cages and a rainbow of recycling bins, but the country has one of the lowest recycling rates among developed nations. In a desperate effort to change this, the Environmental Protection Ministry hopes to commit almost NIS 4 billion ($1.1 billion) over the next decade to improve the country’s recycling rate from a meager 21 percent to 50% by 2030, but it faces an uphill battle trying to educate the public to separate recyclables into the correct containers.
Currently, Israel produces 5.3 million tons of waste a year, an average of 1.7 kilograms per person per day. This is higher than the OECD average of 1.4 kg per person per day but lower than the United States average of 2 kg of waste produced per person per day.
“Israel is consistently among the lowest countries in the OECD when it comes to recycling,” said Oded Nezer, head of the Waste Management Division at the Environmental Protection Ministry.
The vast majority of Israel’s waste, 79%, goes to one of 12 landfills around the country, Nezer said. Just 21% of the waste is recycled. In Europe, approximately 34% of waste is recycled.
Some of the waste cannot be recycled. Approximately 6% of Israel’s waste, by weight, is made up of disposable diapers. But things like cardboard, paper, metal and plastic account for 45% of Israel’s waste by weight. Organic material, such as food scraps, accounts for 34%. All of these can be recycled.
“Landfills have a lot of problems, such as polluting the ground and the groundwater, creating environmental problems and problems with smell, and taking up a large amount of land,” said Nezer. “But one of the biggest problems is also this idea, that when you put something in the landfill, you put it in the ground and it disappears.”
One of the byproducts of helping the public recycle more, including actively separating and sorting their garbage, is helping people become more aware of how much waste each person generates, Nezer said.
Between 2013 and 2016, Israel’s numbers improved incrementally from recycling almost 18% of waste to 21%. But during the same time period, the amount of overall waste the country produced increased by 2% per year.
Nezer said the ministry’s goal of 50% recycling by the year 2030 will not be an easy one to achieve. An important part of the 2030 vision is building facilities that create electricity through the burning of trash instead of coal or gas, a process called “waste-to-energy.”
Sweden, for example, imports waste from other European countries to maintain the operations of their waste-to-energy plants, which heat hundreds of thousands of homes during the winter. Waste-to-energy plants aren’t a perfect solution: Simply burning trash doesn’t address the issue of reducing the overall amount of waste, and it is an energy-intensive process with serious drawbacks. However, it does keep large amounts of waste out of landfills, while providing an alternative energy source.
The ministry has requested NIS 2.8 billion ($800 million) to support the construction of three waste-to-energy facilities by 2030.
Nezer said the vision calls for half of the country’s waste to be recycled, another quarter to be burned for energy, and just a quarter going to landfills.
So what happens to your waste after it leaves your home? Do things really get recycled in Israel?
Israel has a source separated recycling system, which means that the public is responsible for separating their trash into the correct, color-coded bins: green for general waste, blue for paper and cardboard, gray cages for bottles, and orange bins for container recycling, although those colors can vary depending on the municipality and the companies handling the recycling contracts.
Separation at source recycling requires both public education and cooperation. The system can be confusing because there are separate contractors and companies that deal with each of the bins.
“It’s not a perfect system, but it’s really important to continue recycling,” said Maya Jacobs, the CEO of Zalul, an environmental advocacy organization.
It’s important that Israelis get in the habit of recycling, Jacobs said, so as the recycling process becomes more efficient and sustainable, the public will already be conditioned to sort their garbage.
Some of the country’s recyclables are processed domestically, while others go halfway across the world in their recycling journey.
Nezer said one of the main problems the ministry faces with recycling is a pervasive belief among the public that there’s no reason to separate trash because it all ends up in the same place. “The public thinks it’s purposeless, but that’s not true,” said Nezer. “It’s important to emphasize that things are recycled.”
Curious about what happens to your recycled trash after the lid closes on the bin? Read on to find out.
A mountain of trash
Before any discussion about recycling, it’s important to stress that the best kind of recycling is the type that doesn’t happen at all. Recycling is an energy intensive process that requires packaging and transporting massive amounts of goods around the country or around the world. Crushing, heating, and melting the recyclable goods into something else require enormous facilities that guzzle electricity and oil. Recycling is a good alternative to having a plastic bottle sit in a landfill for between 450 to 1000 years, but it also has a cost.
According to the Environmental Protection Ministry, collecting, sorting, and distributing recyclables to the correct places costs about NIS 580 ($165) per ton, compared to simply carting the trash to a landfill, which costs an average of NIS 270 ($77).
And so the better alternative to recycling is to reduce the amount of overall waste.
There are many tips on how to reduce the amount of disposables you use, like carrying a reusable bag, buying in bulk, not drinking bottled water, and reusing plastic containers and bottles. Israelis are the second highest consumers of disposable plates and silverware, second only to the United States, according to Jacobs.
As for who pays for all the expensive recycling, Israel has what is calls “extended producer responsibility” (ERP) recycling, which means that the companies that produce a product are responsible for the post-consumer product as well. This means, for example, that Coca Cola is responsible for their Coke bottles and Tnuva is responsible for their cottage cheese containers after you have consumed whatever was inside.
This recycling policy, which places the financial burden on the companies, is fairly common in Europe and the United States. Companies will pay a recycling contractor a set amount based on the amount of product they import or produce. This cost can be passed along to the consumer but it usually comes out to a few agorot (less than a cent) on each product.
Recycling at your friendly neighborhood bottle cage
Israel has a fairly high level of bottle recycling, thanks to a 1999 law that offers a refundable deposit on recycled bottles, from .30 agorot for small glass and plastic bottles to NIS 1.2 for half-liter glass beer bottles.
ELA Recycling Corporation is responsible for recycling all bottles in Israel, whether they are plastic or glass. The company’s plastic bottle recycling cages are a common sight in communities across the country. Most of the plastic bottles in these cages are over 500 ml, because those bottles do not have a deposit.
ELA collects 2.5 million bottles a day. One source of collection is residential, from the 23,000 neighborhood cages around Israel. When a cage is full, the company contracts a special truck outfitted with an enormous vacuum cleaner, which sucks up its contents and brings them to two ELA facilities for sorting.
The other source of bottle collection are commercial entities such as convenience stores, supermarkets, restaurants, and companies, including stores or other locations that return a deposit to consumers. Some that are bottled in Israel are returned to the factories, where they are cleaned and refilled. Other glass is sorted by color and then shipped to Venice, Italy, where it is made into new glass bottles, explained Hagit Hoshen Koren, the marketing manager for ELA. Glass bottles. These have a deposit and cannot be placed in the neighborhood collection cages.
At the ELA sorting facility, the plastic bottles are sorted and crushed, forming large plastic cubes that are suitable for shipping. These large cubes are transported and sold to European factories that turn them into other plastic products. Aluminum cans go to a local Israeli company where they are turned into oven doors.
In many countries, consumers do not separate plastic bottles from other plastic recycling, and the sorting process happens at the recycling facility. Although the sorting processes can be fairly accurate, it’s never perfect. The fact that Israel has two separate companies handling bottle and container recycling means that cross-contamination is much lower than countries where residents put all of their recyclables in a single container. “The bottles coming from Israel are cleaner, so we can get a higher price, because in Israel we have a separate cage for the bottles,” said Koren.
Many countries used to send all of their plastic recycling to China, and were blindsided last year when China announced they would stop accepting low-grade plastic and other low-grade recyclable materials. Koren said because Israel has a higher quality of raw materials the country has always shipped used plastic bottles to Europe, which has more stringent standards. Israel’s last domestic plastic bottle recycling facility closed in February because the process was not financially lucrative and it did not secure funding from the Environmental Protection Ministry.
While the separate companies and bins allow the country to send higher quality raw material abroad, the downside of having two companies handling bottle and container recycling is that the pickup locations are not always in the same place. The orange bins for container recycling are still being rolled out across the country, and although there are over 100,000 orange bins across the country they are not always accessible and next to bottle cages or other recycling containers, especially in cities.
This places additional barriers on the public, especially residents in underserved or isolated neighborhoods and towns. Someone that wants to recycle might need to go to four different locations – one for trash, one for bottles, one for containers, and one for paper and cardboard. The more barriers that are placed on consumers to separate their garbage, the less incentive they have to recycle.
One way to increase the incentive to recycle is through financial rewards, or deposits.
According to Koren, 78% of small bottles that have a deposit eventually find their way back to ELA, coming from supermarkets, restaurants, and communities.
Just 60% of large bottles that do not have a deposit go back to ELA. “The deposit law creates an economic reason to recycle,” said Jacobs, of Zalul.
Zalul is petitioning lawmakers to expand the deposit law to include larger bottles over 500 ml. Ultra-Orthodox parties are opposed to expanding the bottle deposit law because it will make the drinks more expensive to purchase, increasing costs of living for Haredi families that are already on the brink of poverty. Through the deposit law, consumers end up paying the deposit when they buy the item, which is incorporated into the price.
Jacobs noted that it’s important to educate these families that they can recoup the deposit simply by bringing the empty bottles back to wherever they purchased them. “All these laws aren’t supposed to make life more expensive,” said Jacobs. “They are supposed to help people change their habits.”
An orange cat marketing orange bins
Only one recycling company has its very own app for smartphones, “Catomolo,” a recycling game downloaded 160,000 times. The app, hosted by TAMIR’s friendly orange cat named Dedi, gamifies the recycling experience and helps children learn the right containers that go into the orange bins. Milk cartons – yes! Empty bottles of cleaning products – yes! Banana peels – no!
There are 120,000 orange recycle bins across the country which serve 4.25 million residents, according to Rani Aidler, the CEO of TAMIR, the company that handles container recycling in Israel.
There are also 4,400 purple bins around Israel for glass products, which are handled by either TAMIR or ELA, depending on the municipality.
TAMIR has two sorting facilities, in Rishon Lezion and Afula, where a high-tech sorting system separates the contents of the orange bins into different streams: drink cartons, metal (tin or aluminum cans), and four different types of plastic. The four types of plastics are PET plastics (polyethylene terephthalate plastics, which account for the vast majority of food and drink containers), high density polystyrene (hard plastic containers for things like shampoos and cleaning supplies), low density polystyrene (thin like plastic bags), and mixed polystyrene (containers that are made up of a mix of different types of plastics, such as cottage cheese containers).
As the material progresses through the facility, it is automatically sorted using a number of different techniques. A giant magnet attracts metals such as tins, and a huge vacuum separates plastic bags. An optic eye can determine what type of plastic is passing by and then perfectly timed puffs of air move the plastics into the correct bin. This optic eye allows the facilities to process about three to four tons of disposables per hour. Hand sorting allows the facility to process just one ton per hour, said Aidler.
Drink cartons are sent abroad to places like South Korea and Spain, because the recycling process requires separating the different materials, and is expensive and complicated. A drink carton is made up of cardboard and a waxy or plastic interior that keeps the liquid inside.
Plastic bags and hard plastics (high density polystyrene) go to a recycling factory in Beit Shean called K.B. Recycling Industries where they are turned into new products. According to Zalul, one of the problems is that the recycled plastics in Israel are turned into disposable, single-use plastic items, like more plastic bags or disposable utensils. “Right now they’re just making plastic bags for supermarkets, and that’s a shame,” said Jacobs. “Why don’t they make more long-term things? Making plastic bags from plastic uses huge amounts of water, power, and resources.” Jacobs said other factories around the world are making benches from recycled plastic.
Currently, just 10% of the container waste that could be recycled makes it into the correct bins, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Blue bins for cardboard and paper
Private companies recycle cardboard and paper in Israel. Depending on the municipality, different companies are responsible for collecting the contents of the blue bins. Two of the largest companies that deal with paper waste are Amnir and KMM. Both companies are also contractors for ELA and TAMIR, and in some cases assist with the logistics of collecting and transporting recycled paper and cardboard.
Amnir collects about 400,000 metric tons of paper per year, the equivalent of almost 60,000 elephants. Some of the paper is repurposed into the company’s RePaper products — such as notebooks and regular A4 printing paper — which are made of 100% post-consumer paper.
Compost and food scraps — easiest to recycle but least developed
Composting is an organic process where food scraps break down over time, creating a rich fertilizer that some farmers call “black gold.” Composting is the easiest and cheapest recycling process as it is a natural process. It is also the single largest category of potentially recyclable materials. More than a third of Israel’s waste is organic matter that can be composted, according to the Environmental Protection Ministry.
Currently there are no industrial compost sites in Israel, though various environmental groups are advocating for them. Nezer said many cities struggle with the best way to collect organic waste without it posing a health risk, and that the process often works better in small suburban or rural locations rather than cities.
“Organic waste that is put in landfills or incorrectly disposed of creates the biggest problem,” said Nezer. Food scraps or vegetables that break down in landfills create methane gas, one of the leading causes of climate change, he said.
Several cities and municipalities across Israel have composting programs that allow apartment buildings or private homes to maintain their own private composts. Many offer subsidized plastic compost bins and, in Jerusalem, a dedicated “compost doctor” who will come to your building and teach you and your neighbors how to compost. Check with your local municipality to see if your neighborhood has a program.
“Some people can give food waste to their chickens or put it in compost or in their garden, but that’s not good for everyone,” Nezer said. He said the ministry is working with about 20 local authorities that have composting programs, but they don’t have any plans for a national program or industrial composting system. He said the ministry encourages local authorities to provide separate bins for food waste at vegetable markets or areas where there is a high amount of organic waste.
Some cities are trying pilot programs, while others find themselves inadvertently composting while observing Jewish rituals. Bnei Barak, the crowded ultra-Orthodox city, has a de facto composting program during shmitta years. According to biblical tradition, once every seven years the land must rest, and any fruit or vegetable grown during the year of rest needs to be disposed in a special way. During this year, brown bins pop up across Bnei Barak where families can dump their fruit and vegetable scraps so they can be disposed in a way that honors religious tradition, which is basically composting. Along the way, it also saves hundreds of tons of food scraps from entering the regular landfill. The city has not expanded this program to non-shmitta years.
Batteries and electronics at various points
Batteries and electronics that end up in landfills will leak out hazardous material. Every city has a process for dealing with large electronics and locations to drop off used batteries. In Tel Aviv, for example, all AM:PM convenience stores accept used batteries. Call your local municipality to find out where you can bring these products for proper disposal.
Don’t be an ‘aspirational recycler’
TAMIR created their friendly orange cat to help people understand what kinds of items go in the orange bins for a very good reason: the more contaminants in a bin, the more expensive it is to sort, and the lower the quality of the final product that they hope to sell.
One of the big problems recycling companies face around the world is “aspirational recycling,” or people who truly want to do good so they put everything in the recycling bins in the hopes that it will somehow get to the right place.
This type of behavior actually does more harm than good, by introducing contaminants to the recycling process. If a batch has too many contaminants when it gets to the recycling facility, everything could be tossed, even the recyclable material.
The best way to ensure your items are recycled is to educate yourself what can and can’t go in the recycling bins. One of the most common offenders for what people think can be recycled but definitely cannot is greasy pizza boxes or takeout food containers with scraps of food still inside. Grease and food scraps make containers exceedingly difficult to recycle. Disposable coffee cups are another repeat offender, because the cups have a wax or polyethylene coating that is difficult to separate from the cardboard.
So, what’s the bottom line?
While all this information might seem overwhelming, activists and politicians say the most important takeaway for the public is quite simple: Reduce and reuse what you can, recycle what you can’t, and make sure to put everything in the right bins.
“Our message to the Israeli public is that we want them to take responsibility,” said Nezer. “They need to throw their waste in the right places.”