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Supermarkets ill-prepared for expanded bottle deposit law

With just 200 or so machines available countrywide to collect beverage containers and issue refunds, Environment Ministry faces bumpy start of big bottle regulations December 1

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

A shopper tries out the bottle deposit automat at a Talpiot, south Jerusalem, branch of the Yochananoff supermarket chain, November 23, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)
A shopper tries out the bottle deposit automat at a Talpiot, south Jerusalem, branch of the Yochananoff supermarket chain, November 23, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

It’s fun the first time you insert your recyclable beverage containers into a talking bottle return machine and watch them disappear, with a clunk, to be sorted and prepared for recycling.

If you paid a deposit when you first bought the glass and plastic bottles or the aluminum cans, you feed them in and get a deposit refund voucher.

This reporter took her bottles to a branch of the Yochananoff supermarket in southern Jerusalem to test a NIS 100,000 ($31,600) machine designed by the Israeli company Asofta Recycling Corporation and produced overseas according to its specification.

The machine accepts one bottle or can at a time, swallows it, sorts it and shreds it to bits, optimizing space and requiring less transport.

And it doesn’t suffer cheats.

It knows how to identify a container that doesn’t have a deposit barcode on it or is a (thick cardboard) carton, and asks you to remove it forthwith — in Hebrew, Arabic, Russian or English; you choose.

Dancing beverage containers on the front of an Asofta reverse vending machine at a Talpiot, south Jerusalem, branch of the Yochananoff supermarket chain, November 23, 2021. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

The machine features trivia information and a cute cartoon of dancing bottles and cans.

Did you know, for example, that a pair of jeans might include an average of eight recycled plastic bottles?

Just 50 of Asofta’s reverse vending machines are in retail outlets at present, with another 200 on order and due to arrive by February.

Another company, the Norwegian Tomra, has supplied 150 stores with its machines — which compress rather than shred — via an Israeli company, Afcon Control and Automation Services. Another 25 are on order.

The Environmental Protection Ministry says, in an apparent slight underestimate, that countrywide, there are some 180 reverse vending machines in stores in total, with a further 220 on their way.

But this is a drop in the bottle, given that on December 1, an expanded bottle deposit law will come into effect.

Since 2001, when the government passed the Deposit Law on Beverage Containers, a refundable sum — currently NIS 30 agorot ($0.09) — has been added to the cost of all cans of drinks, and glass and plastic bottles containing 100 milliliters (3.4 fluid ounces) to 1.5 liters (1.6 quarts) of beverage, to encourage people to return them after use.

Former Minister of Environmental Protection, Gila Gamliel, at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, Jerusalem, March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In October last year, the former Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel, announced that the law would be expanded to drinks containers of between 1.5 and 5 liters (1.6 to 5.3 quarts).

She gave the drinks companies and retailers a year to prepare for the changes.

She also ensured that NIS 100 million ($31.6 million) would be available to subsidize the purchase of so-called reverse vending machines to make it easy for consumers to return their bottles and cans easily at gas stations, community centers and other publicly accessible locations.

But her successor, Tamar Zandberg, has chosen not to subsidize something that she feels should be paid for by the polluters — the beverage container manufacturers and importers and the retailers that sell them.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg speaks during a Conference of Heads of Local Authorities in Ramat Negev, southern Israel, July 22, 2021. (Flash90)

This change of approach led to a spat between the two women at a Knesset committee meeting earlier this month, with Gamliel blaming the ministry for lack of preparation and Zandberg criticizing the retail chains for not getting ready in time.

In Europe, the machines can be found everywhere from airports to large parking lots and often give the consumer options such as donating the refund to charity.

“We are not at all prepared,” Rami Levy of the Rami Levy supermarket empire told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, wondering how his staff will cope with the large quantities of bottles customers are set to bring to service counters for refunds.

“There are no machines in Rami Levy branches at present. We’ve ordered some but it’ll take at least six months for them to arrive.”

“We’re talking about a very big quantity (of bottles),” he went on. “I don’t know how we will cope with it technically.”

Portrait of Rami Levi taken in his supermarket in Jerusalem. on June 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster / FLASH90)

“The state passes laws and doesn’t provide solutions. It should have made sure to put machines in the chains, in the community centers, to make it easy for people to use.”

He added, “If people have to queue and aren’t given a solution at the retail chains, they’ll throw the bottles into the trash instead.”

Industry sources say that with the high cost of the machines, many store owners are not ordering in the hope that either the deposit law rollout will be so disastrous that it will be canceled, or that the fines for refusing to accept bottles and return deposits will be worthwhile paying when the price of the machines is taken into account.

In an attempt to smooth what looks likely to be bumpy transition, the Environmental Protection Ministry has asked the local authorities not to remove, until April, the cages which to date have been used to collect larger bottles —  beverage containers without deposit stickers and non-beverage ones containing liquids such as shampoo and laundry detergent — on a voluntary basis.

After that, according to a ministry announcement earlier this week, the cages will be replaced by the Tamir Corporation’s orange bins, already present in much of the country for the collection of all types of packaging and containers that are not made of glass or paper. (Separate bins exist for these latter two items).

An orange recycling bin, with a sign setting out the types of containers that can be deposited. (Courtesy Tamir Recycling Corporation)

Jerusalem has not had orange bins up to now, opting to have residents throw packaging and containers into general trash bins whose content is sorted further down the line by a factory to the north of the city.

A Jerusalem Municipality spokesperson said talks were being held between the ministry, the municipality and Tamir about the possibility of bringing in orange bins to replace the outgoing bottle cages in the city.

In Jerusalem, 400 of 1,000 cages have already been towed away, and in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, 210 out of 730 are already gone.

During a briefing for the public held via Facebook on Wednesday, Ministry officials urged the public not under any circumstances to throw their big bottles into the general trash.

A woman throws a bottle into the recycling bin in central Jerusalem. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A woman throws a bottle into the recycling bin in central Jerusalem. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

If they do, the public will pay twice — once for landfill services, which form part of city taxes, and a second time for the lost deposit refund.

The ministry, which is currently talking to all the retail chains, urging them to prepare properly,  is promising major publicity campaigns for the general public as well as specific sectors such as the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs.

According to the law, consumers will be able to return up to 50 beverage containers at a time to any store measuring more than 28 square meters (300 square feet) and to get a cash refund, or, if the customer chooses, a voucher.

Smaller stores will have to return the money on bottles bought on their premises.

Where there are no machines yet, customers will need to return their bottles and cans to customer service counters or whatever the specific chain advises.

An elderly man searches a recycling bin for plastic bottles he can take for a refund, Jerusalem, July 23, 2017. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

Cash will only be paid on bottles with the right stickers showing the deposit amount and barcode. The minimum deposit amount is 30 agorot, although the bottle makers are free to increase this for large containers.

The Environmental Protection Ministry is in the process of establishing a Deposit Law Hotline to which the public will be able to report any refusals to refund deposits.

It has promised increased inspections and fines to ensure that stores toe the line.

Residents who do not know where the nearest bottle cage or orange bin is are advised to contact their local authority.

Two new plastic bottle recycling plants are in the process of being set up In Israel.

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