Tel Aviv has the third most plastic pollution on its coastline among 22 Mediterranean countries, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature.
According to the report, the Tel Aviv region has an average of 21 kilograms (46 pounds) of plastic debris per kilometer of coastline, one of the highest in the Mediterranean after Turkey’s Cilicia region and Spain’s Barcelona. Cilicia had 31.3 kilograms (69 pounds) of plastic waste per kilometer of coastline, and Barcelona had 26.1 kilograms (58 pounds) of plastic waste per kilometer.
Plastics that end up in the seas and ocean are an increasingly common problem, killing maritime wildlife, contaminating fish and seafood entering the food chain, and leading to hundreds of millions of dollars of loss in tourism and maritime related industries.
Currently there are 247 billion pieces of plastic floating in the Mediterranean, with the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles being dumped into the sea every minute, according to the WWF.
The Mediterranean is the fourth largest plastic goods producer. The region, which consists of 22 countries that border the sea, produced 38 million tons of plastic in 2016, an average of 76 kilograms (168 pounds) per person, which is 23 kilograms (50 pounds) per person more than the global average, the report stated.
Most of the plastic in the Mediterranean Sea is a result of mismanaged waste, including uncollected trash and plastics dumped in illegal landfills.
Although Israel has a more efficient waste management system than many other countries in the region, sea currents and wind mean that the garbage from other countries combines with local trash and high amounts accumulate on the beaches in the center of the country.
Egypt is responsible for nearly half of the plastics flowing into the Mediterranean Sea (42.5 percent), followed by Turkey (18.9 percent) and Italy (7.5 percent).
Israel is the country with the second-highest use of disposable plastic plates and utensils in the world, in absolute terms. The country uses approximately 4.5 billion disposable plates and utensils every year, according to the Zalul environmental organization. This amount is second only to disposable use by the United States, whose population is 36 times as big.
“Israel is one of countries in the world that uses the most disposable dishes. Part of that is because of kosher reasons; part of that is because of the large families,” said Maya Jacobs, the CEO of Zalul, which does a lot of advocacy for plastic reduction and cleaning up waterways.
The World Wildlife Fund report noted that France and Israel have the least mismanaged waste among Mediterranean countries, with around 0% of mismanaged waste for France and 5% of mismanaged waste for Israel.
Mismanaged waste refers to waste that is not taken to recycling plants or recognized landfills, but rather allowed to accumulate in illegal landfills or in streets and parks as litter.
Israel has high rates of recycling, even though the recycling is managed by a number of different bodies that work individually. Around 78% of small bottles and 60% of large bottles are recycled through Elah Recycling Corporation, which manages the 23,000 cages around the country where residents can drop off empty bottles.
However, environmentalists are quick to point out that recycling is only one small part of the solution to the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans, because recycling is an expensive and energy-intensive process. According to the WWF report, it costs an average of NIS 3,742 ($1,044) to recycle a ton of plastic, but that same ton of plastic sells for just NIS 2,189 ($611) on the market, making recycling vastly unprofitable.
Much more important than recycling is reducing the amount of disposable plastics used in the first place, especially in Israel.
Part of that includes passing legal incentives that encourage people to sort their trash at home, also known as “separation at source.” When people separate their trash and correctly dispose of recyclables in the correct container, it increases the quality of the plastic waste, making it cheaper and more attractive for recycling companies.
Laws like the Israel Beverage Container Deposit Law, passed in 1999 and implemented in 2001, meant consumers who return plastic bottles up to 1.5 liters now get a 0.30 agorot ($0.08) refund per bottle. Glass half-liter beer bottles have a higher refund – NIS 1.20 ($0.33), but larger plastic bottles, of 1.5 liters and above, do not have a refund. Companies that manufacture or import large bottles pay a 0.25% fee to the recycling corporation that collects and recycles their products, similar to companies that import or manufacture products that come in packaging and containers recycled in the orange bins.
Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset have traditionally been opposed to deposit laws, or taxes on disposable items, which is why Zalul’s efforts to expand the Deposit Law to include larger bottles have stalled in the Knesset.
“Haredim see it as making life more expensive so they’re very against it,” said Jacobs. “But all these laws aren’t supposed to make life more expensive, they’re supposed to help people change their habits.”
If people return their bottles to the store and collect their deposit, their daily cost of living won’t change, she added. Zalul is hoping to start working directly with synagogues that use disposable plates and cutlery in hopes of getting them to think about the impact of their plastic use beyond the walls of their institution.
Another possible legal incentive to cut down on plastic waste is implementing taxes or an all-out ban on single-use plastics. Jacobs and the WWF report cited European legislation to ban single-use plastics as the most important step that governments can take to reduce plastics making their way to the sea.
In March, the European Parliament passed an ambitious ban on the 10 kinds of single-use plastic most commonly found on European beaches, including cotton bud sticks (also known by the brand name Q-tips), cutlery, plates, straws, stirrers, sticks for balloons, and certain types of plastic cups and food containers.
France’s law banning single-use plastics, passed in 2016, will come into effect in 2020, though some plastics industries are still fighting the legislation. Croatia has said it will adopt the European Union Single Use Plastics Directive. The Egyptian city of Hurghada, on the Sinai coast, also banned single-use plastics, including straws, and even the Al-Shabab terror group announced in 2018 that it was banning disposable plastic bags in the territories they control.
Jacobs is hoping that Israel will follow suit, though she knows there will be a lot of opposition from a population utterly entrenched in using single-use plastics on a daily basis. But with Tel Aviv’s status as the third-most polluted beaches in the entire Mediterranean region, maybe the frustration of dodging plastic bottles in between the waves could be a wake-up call.
“Israel is addicted to using enormous amounts of disposable items that is out of proportion to the amount of people living here,” said Jacobs. “We need to do a lot of education and explanation, trying to get people to use less.”