Plastic bags and containers make up 70% of Israel’s Med, Red Sea trash — study

NIS 80 million available for cutting plastic bag use, yet no government targets set; Tel Aviv ranked third among 22 Mediterranean beaches for most plastic pollution along coastline

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Plastic waste in the sea. (dottedhippo/iStock by Getty Images)
Plastic waste in the sea. (dottedhippo/iStock by Getty Images)

Nearly three-quarters of the trash found in Israeli waters in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea consists of bits of plastic bags and plastic containers, according to the National Marine Waste Monitoring Report for 2019, published Wednesday.

The survey was released just a day after the Knesset Interior Affairs and Environmental Protection committees heard that targets for plastic bag reduction in the coming years, which should have been embedded in Knesset regulations by 2018, have not advanced beyond the desk of two Environmental Protection ministers, in violation of the law.

Despite pleas from ministry officials to step up activity, no public awareness campaigns to cut plastic bags have been run since 2016 because they were “not ministerial priorities.”

Since 2017, food retailers have been obliged to levy a NIS 10 agorot (three cents) charge for every plastic bag. Out of the NIS 127 ($37.5) million transferred since then to the ministry’s Clean Fund from the bag tax, just NIS 46 ($13.5) million has been spent so far — NIS 20 ($6) million on a campaign to encourage multi-use shopping bags and a further NIS 26 ($7.7) million on unrelated programs to clean up beaches.

Earlier this year, in light of a worrying rise in the number of turtles getting tangled up in plastic in the sea, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority called for the public’s help to locate and report incidents. Despite increased efforts by the country’s local authorities to keep beaches clean, the World Wide Fund for Nature last year ranked Tel Aviv third among 22 Mediterranean beaches for the most plastic pollution along its coastline.

A young turtle tangled up in a green plastic ‘jute’ bag, photographed at the Israel Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. (YouTube/Israel Nature and Parks Authority screenshot)

On Monday, Knesset Internal and Environmental Affairs Committee chairwoman Miki Haimovich (Blue and White) reported that she had persuaded Justice Ministry officials to agree to approve bylaw changes to ban single-use plastic on beaches.

Worldwide, some eight million tons of plastic waste enter the seas every year.

In Israel, the monitoring program to track floating and seabed waste — the fourth annual survey — was carried out by Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research, a government corporation.

A penguin trapped in plastic netting. (zvibrav/iStock by Getty Images).

Debris spotted in the Mediterranean Sea, at depths of 20 to 1,700 meters (22 to 1,860 yards), mainly came from plastic food wrappings. The highest concentrations — 4,000 to 10,000 individual items of waste per square kilometer (1200 square yards) — were in the band of water 200 to 500 meters (218 to 546 yards) deep.

Substantial amounts were only seen close to the coast after heavy rain. According to an Environmental Protection Ministry statement, this suggests that the main source of waste in the Mediterranean Sea is not from bathers but from urban waste flowing together with surface runoff along drainage canals and trash that enters streams that flow into the sea.

Tiny plastic particles measuring five millimeters or less — which are now known to enter the marine food chain and eventually reach our plates — were found in both the Mediterranean and Red seas.

Floating trash in both locations — also mainly tiny particles measuring up to 3.5 millimeters (0.14 of an inch) from plastic bags and containers — were found in concentrations of up to 13 million bits per square kilometer, which is high compared with the Western Mediterranean. Between 50% and 80% of these floating pieces were either white or clear in color, the most dangerous for sea creatures that mistake them for food.

Not surprisingly, samplings of beaches this year turned up a new form of trash — gloves and masks used as protection against coronavirus.

A discarded disposable medical mask on a beach. (tataks/iStock by Getty Images)

Overall, plastic bags and containers made up 70% of the marine waste identified.

Plastic bag use on the rise

Israelis appear to be using more single-use plastic bags, not less, despite an initial dramatic drop following the introduction of the 2017 bag surcharge, the Knesset committee heard Tuesday.

That law obliged the Environmental Protection Ministry to set targets for reductions within a year. One official, Noa Spitzer-Mizrahi, revealed that the professionals finished preparing draft targets in 2018 but were still waiting for them to enter the ministry’s work schedule and list of priorities. Another official said former Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin had put the brakes on targets, but that the current minister, Gila Gamliel, was aware of the proposals and wanted to review policy before reaching a decision.

Israeli blogger Gil Drori picks up a plastic bag on the Beit Yanai beach on November 23, 2018, during his 9-day journey to raise awareness of the harmful effects of disposable plastic pollution on the Mediterranean Sea. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Lambasting the lax pace of progress, committee chairwoman Haimovich said that awareness-raising cannot have been successful if a seasoned recycler like her did not even know that plastic bags could be recycled when put into orange containers and wrapping recycling bins (distributed around most of the country, but not in Jerusalem). Joint List MK Sondos Saleh said awareness-raising about the disadvantages of plastic bags did not exist in the Arab sector.

According to Environmental Protection Ministry data for the period immediately prior to the implementation of the plastic bag law in January 2017, Israelis were collecting an average of 325 such bags per year and throwing a quarter of them into the trash after using them once. This compared at the time to an average of 100 bags per capita in Europe. The abandoned draft targets set by ministry officials envisioned cutting use to 170 bags per person per year by 2020 and reaching 65 per head by 2027.

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

Spitzer-Mizrahi said that large food retailers purchased two billion plastic bags for free distribution in 2016, before the law was passed in April 2016 and implemented in January 2017.

After implementation, that number dropped dramatically to 380 million, but it then rose in 2018 to 430 million and in 2019 to 454 million. Up to June 30 this year, retailers had already bought 237 million bags. The figures were not cross-referenced with population growth.

According to the ministry’s website, more than 70% of the public supports a law prohibiting the free distribution of plastic bags that harm the environment. The ministry publishes a list of the supermarkets obliged to charge for bags that have a width of 20-50 microns (One micron is one-millionth of a meter or one twenty-five thousandth of an inch).

Ultra-Orthodox Jews outside a supermarket in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 25, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

But as the committee heard, some of the large retailers have tried to bypass the law, distributing bags that are thicker than 50 microns, or thick paper bags which are also environmentally questionable, or distributing multi-use bags in such great numbers that consumers throw most of them away for lack of storage space. The money retailers pay to buy plastic bags is rolled onto the consumer in higher prices for other products.

For reasons that are unclear to Environmental Protection Ministry officials, there is also a gap between the number of plastic bags that big retailers buy and the numbers that they can prove were sold on to customers.

Spitzer-Mizrahi said that there was no plan at present either to raise the price of plastic bags that must be paid for within the framework of the law, or to extend the law to other retailers, such as drug stores.

The two environmental organizations — Adam Teva V’Din and Zalul — said there was no substitute for legally obliging all retailers to charge. “This is Israel,” said Adam Teva V’Din’s Amiad Lapidot. “If one store charges and the next one doesn’t, people will shop at the latter.”

Haimovich said she would study Adam Teva V’Din’s draft text for amending the law.

Speaking for the Plastic Bag Manufacturers and Marketers Forum of the Association of Chambers of Commerce, Gidi Frishtick complained that ministry promises to help the industry had not been honored, with the result that three out of six production companies had closed. Spitzer-Mizrahi said that the manufacturers had insisted on financial compensation, which the ministry could not provide.

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

According to Prof. Ofira Ayalon of the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, half of all plastic bags used in Israel are designed specifically for home trash containers and purchased by consumers for the purpose. These are not included in the Environmental Protection Ministry’s figures.

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