Solid waste is sorted and separated at a facility next to the Hiriya Landfilll near Tel Aviv on November 11, 2008. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Solid waste is sorted and separated at a facility next to the Hiriya Landfilll near Tel Aviv on November 11, 2008. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
ToI investigatesWorld's waste expected to increase by 70% over next 30 years

With no time to waste, new environment minister signals support for recycling

Gila Gamliel has halted moves to build controversial waste-to-energy plants, and activists hope she will adopt European approach of reduction, reuse and recycling

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

Nature has no waste.

Its components exist in a never-ending, circular, process of buildup and breakdown, as the elements that create our earth, atmosphere and living creatures are recycled over and over.

Since the Industrial Revolution, however, human society — at least in the developed world — has functioned according to a linear, “take, make and dump” approach, which has depleted our natural resources, polluted our planet, and threatens to drown us in waste.

Over the next 30 years, worldwide waste is expected to rise by a whopping 70 percent. Policy-makers are being forced to grapple with new ways of dealing with it.

Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel. (Courtesy, Environmental Protection Ministry)

Among these are Israel’s new Environmental Protection Minister, Gila Gamliel, one of whose first acts has been to temporarily freeze ministry waste policy — including moves to build incineration plants — so that she can conduct a review.

Last Tuesday, to mark UN World Environment Day (which actually took place the previous Friday) she told the Knesset that the world was moving away from linear “produce, use and dump” policies toward a circular economy, where one person’s trash is another person’s resource and where “the concept of waste almost does not exist.”

On Wednesday, she announced the replacement of the ministry’s pro-incineration director general, Guy Samet, with David Yahalomi, a former finance director at the municipality of Gedera, in central Israel, where Gamliel grew up and where her brother has been mayor since 2008.

While at the council, Yahalomi led several environmental projects, among them an initiative to separate waste at source into three streams and establish recycling points, as well as a pilot composter project in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Environmental activists are hoping that Gamliel will dump the incinerator plan and adopt a policy far closer to that of the European Union.

What goes around

Today, the buzzword, in environmental circles, at least, is circular economy.

Circular systems emphasize reuse, repair, refurbishment, re-manufacturing and recycling to create closed loops within a specific country. These loops reduce the need to extract new resources from nature, along with the energy needed for that extraction, leaving a smaller carbon footprint and generating minimum waste.

The EU Commission’s Circular Economy Action Plan, set out in a massive and detailed document published in March, after more than four years of work, puts it this way.

“There is only one planet Earth, yet by 2050, the world will be consuming as if there were three. Global consumption of materials such as biomass (organic material), fossil fuels, metals and minerals is expected to double in the next 40 years, while annual waste generation is projected to increase by 70 percent by 2050. [The United States is the biggest generator of waste per capita worldwide.]

“Half of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress (scarcity) come from resource extraction and processing.

“A circular economy undoes the tie between resource exploitation and economic growth, allowing the latter to continue in as much of a carbon-neutral way as possible, and enabling economies to remain competitive.”

“Half of total greenhouse gas emissions and more than 90% of biodiversity loss and water stress come from resource extraction and processing

Underlying the EU’s approach is a waste hierarchy aimed at lowering the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. It puts waste prevention in first place, followed by reuse and recycling, and, toward the bottom, in fourth and fifth position, respectively, “other recovery” and “disposal.”

The document underlines what some environmental activists have been saying for years — that the best way to slow global warming-related emissions is to cut consumption and that the most effective approach to changing people’s behavior is to hit them in the pocket — to tax them for sending waste to landfill for example, or to give benefits for services that offer repair.

In principle, Israel also favors a circular economy and the waste hierarchy.

To turn that into practice, Gamliel will have to undo some of her predecessor’s work first.

During Ze’ev Elkin’s tenure, the ministry came up with a NIS 4 ($1.15) billion Strategic Plan for the Treatment of Waste by 2030, nearly 75% (NIS 2.8 billion) of which it earmarked to subsidize three or so huge incinerators, promoted as “waste to energy” plants.

The first, named The Good Samaritan, in Maale Adumim, in the West Bank, just outside of Jerusalem, has already gone out to the preliminary stage of tender. The Civil Administration, which governs Maale Adumim, has not rezoned the site, earmarked years ago for landfill, which means that public consultation has not been held. The locations for another three plants in the center of the country, not all of which will necessarily be built, were approved in principle last month by the National Planning Council.

A history of political zigzagging

In 2006, the government introduced a Sustainable Solid Waste Management Master Plan, which set new goals for national and local governments, including reducing the total quantity of waste in general, and reaching a 50% recycling rate by 2015. It failed. Waste has not been reduced and the recycling goal was postponed to 2020, and has now been put off again, to 2030. It remains unclear how, not to mention when, this goal will be achieved.

Gilad Erdan, the new Minister of Regional Cooperation, was the only Environmental Protection Minister of the past couple of decades seen by environmental activists as someone who cared, understood and really tried to introduce the basics of a successful circular economy, although the term — first coined in the mid 1970s — was less common then.

He fought to ensure that waste was separated at source, particularly organic (wet) waste — vegetable clippings, yard trimmings etc. — from dry waste such as paper, cardboard, glass and plastic.

Gilad Erdan, photographed on June 2, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Separation at source ensures recyclable materials of a higher quality. A cardboard box contaminated by onion juice or oil from a tuna can is no longer recyclable.

If separated at source, organic waste, which accounts for a third of all waste in Israel, can be composted and used to improve intensively farmed soil. Alternatively, it can be processed by bio-composting, in which anaerobic microbes (that do not need oxygen) break organic matter down, producing methane that can be used for energy and high-quality liquid fertilizer. Compost, nature’s answer to ridding the ground of dead plants and animals, produces what gardeners like to call black gold for its magical effect on tired soil. But it must be pure. From an emissions point of view, composting or biocomposting also make sense as they produce far less carbon dioxide per kilogram of waste than incineration.

In this September 2011 photo, grounds crew worker Evan Hyatt drives a mobile winder, used for placing covers atop huge piles of composting materials at the Cedar Grove processing facility in Everett, Wash. The city of Seattle began requiring residents in 2009 to recycle their food scraps along with weekly yard waste pickup and the results have been impressive: in 2010, the city’s contractor kept 90,000 tons of Seattleites’ banana peels, chicken bones and weeds out of landfills and converted that waste into rich compost prized in gardens. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

In 2009, when he was in charge of environmental protection (until 2013), Erdan tried to do what is common practice in many European countries —  introduce bins for organic material into homes so that pure organic waste could be separated and collected. He also wanted to fund recycling plants so that there was somewhere to send the plastics, paper, cardboard and glass, and to overhaul education to encourage recycling and reuse.

It was on his watch, in 2011, that the not-for-profit Tamir Corporation received the government license to take responsibility for collecting packaging and containers via its distinctive orange bins.  (The ELA Corportion for collecting bottles was created in 2001).

But ultimately, the separation at source initiative failed, despite the investment of hundreds of millions of shekels.

Israel’s recycling policy is confused, and there’s little public education

To this day, there is no unified recycling program, with the result that local authorities, the bodies responsible for collecting waste, implement different policies, which causes confusion.

Furthermore, in light of woefully poor public education about the importance of recycling, many Israelis remain ignorant about it and of those who are not, many are bewildered.

Most cities and towns do have separate, color-coded, bins for collecting paper, cardboard, glass and plastic bottles of a certain size. Retailers are bound by a deposit law to refund customers on some bottles.

Bottles and drinks cans containing less than 1.5 liters, which consumers have returned to a supermarket to retrieve their deposits, stand outside a city store. (Sue Surkes/Times of Israel)

But look into a green bin for general waste and you will invariably see plastic bottles, paper and other items that should be in color-coded receptacles. Occasionally, the receptacles are even stolen — in Jerusalem, a bottle collecting bin was taken and converted into a parrot cage.

Conversely, eager recyclers, who want to be sure that they recycle as much as possible, stuff cages intended only for plastic bottles with all manner of other waste.

In the middle, the perplexed will often leave bags of waste next to the recycling bins.

Organic waste is collected in only 12 local authorities

Today, organic waste is collected for composting in just 12 out of more than 250 local authorities in Israel and is no longer government subsidized. Most of it ends up in landfill.

According to Central Bureau of Statistics figures for 2018, 23.8% of household waste, or 1.3 million tons out of a total of 5.7 million tons,  is sent for recycling — 300,000 tons of it separated at source and a million tons extracted from mixed waste at waste separation facilities.

It’s not totally clear where the recycling takes place. In 2017, for example, the last plastic bottle recycling factory, which opened in 1992, shut its doors after the government refused to help it with subsidies. There are still some, although not enough, local recycling plants for cardboard, paper, glass, oil and some forms of plastic.

A bottle recycling cage, not unlike the type employed by SodaStream for its ads. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A bottle recycling cage, not unlike the type employed by SodaStream for its ads. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

By comparison, the European Environment Agency reported that in 2017, 46 % of the municipal waste generated in the 28 EU countries as well as Iceland, Norway and Switzerland was being recycled. Leading the pack, Germany was recycling 68% of municipal waste.

Until 2017, it was cheaper to send materials for recycling to countries such as China and India. Then in 2017 China announced it would ban imports of plastics and other forms of waste, with India following in similar fashion a year later.

Environment Ministry U-turn

Rather than trying to understand why separation at source failed and to give it more time, the Environmental Protection Ministry U-turned.

Avi Gabbay, photographed in Tel Aviv, June 23, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In 2015, then Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabbay surprised his own officials by telling a conference that source separated recycling had “failed.”

The following year, the State Comptroller issued a report that strengthened this view, criticizing local authorities for their failure to separate at source.

The ministry promptly started pressing ahead with a policy that starts from back to  front, prioritizing one of the EU’s least desirable options — waste incineration.

The mantra: Reducing landfill

The aim remains the same — to reduce trash being sent to landfill, which currently stands at more than three quarters of all waste generated.

Finding sufficient space for landfill is an issue in a country as small as Israel. Furthermore, organic matter, if left to decompose without aeration, emits climate warming methane into the air and, together with combustible materials such as paints, solvents and detergents, can create the conditions for explosion and fire, which releases carbon dioxide, unless modern technology for gas capture is installed. Unless the dumpsite is properly sealed, many materials will combine with rainwater to leach poisons into the groundwater.

Much waste is driven miles by lorries to the vast expanse of the Negev desert in Israel’s south. Some of it is dumped en route by drivers who want to get home quickly and are happy to avoid paying landfill fees. It is the trash dumped outside of landfill that can make its way to streams and eventually the sea, killing fish and strangling wildlife.

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)

Incineration: Neither renewable nor clean
But as an alternative to landfill, incineration is neither renewable nor clean. It takes the byproducts of fossil fuel extraction, such as plastics, and burns them at high temperatures to reduce their volume and produce small quantities of gas that can be used to produce heat or to create steam to drive turbines to generate electricity.

In sun-drenched Israel, however, any amount of energy produced by burning waste will be outperformed in price, production and environmental friendliness by solar fields. According to one study, waste to energy plants create ten times less energy than a solar plant, for the same upfront investment.

In 2017, there were 492 municipal waste incinerators in Europe.

The Dublin Waste-to-Energy Facility, viewed from the Clontarf coast in Ireland. (O’Dea, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commos)

That year, in a document entitled “The role of waste-to-energy in the circular economy,” the EU made clear that waste operations with “limited energy recovery” were “the least favourable option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and that they should be categorized as waste “disposal,” regarded as a last resort and discouraged via taxes and the withdrawl of government subsidies. Older ones should be phased out and no new ones built, it said.

The idea, it emphasized, is that materials such as plastics should be replaced with more sustainable alternatives, not that society should continue producing, using and discarding them and then send them to be burned.

Incinerators are listed in Annex C of the Stockholm convention, which Israel has signed, as a primary source of POP hazardous pollutants, POPs being Persistent Organic Pollutants, sometimes known as “forever chemicals.”

Around 25% of the volume of trash that goes into an incinerator remains in different forms of toxic ash, which has to be dealt with or buried.

Elkin’s plan would have initially seen three incinerators — The Good Samaritan and and another two in the center of the country, burning up to 1,500 tons of waste each day, which would generate more than 400,000 tons of potentially toxic ash every year. Some of this could possibly be used.

However, in countries with a large number of  waste incinerators, such as the Netherlands, high levels of harmful dioxins and other POPs have been found in the environment where ash has been mixed into cement, grout, and concrete or used as as filler in the building of roads.

A study from Italy undertaken in 2015 found that women living close to waste incinerators were more likely than the general population to have miscarriages.

Infraserv Höchst in Germany produces energy from waste in various ways, including biocomposting to produce biogas, fro organic waste and industrial sludge. High calorific value waste, also known as refuse-derived fuel, is fired at the waste-to-energy plant pictured. (Norbert Nagel, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The full health implications of incinerators are not yet known.

The first systematic review of the literature on waste to energy plants and public health was only published in September. Firm conclusions about the safety of incinerators could not be reached because of poor study methodologies and inconsistent reporting of incinerator technology specifications, the researchers found.

“There is some suggestion that newer incinerator technologies with robust maintenance schedules may be less harmful, but diseases from exposures tend to manifest only after many years of cumulative exposure, so it is premature to conclude that these newer technologies improve safety,” the review said, adding, that “based on a precautionary principle, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that any incinerator is safe.”

The EU is clear that waste operations with “limited energy recovery” are “the least favourable option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A disincentive to recycling?

Unlike domestic gas stoves, which can be turned on and off, incineration plants have to be kept burning at high temperatures around the clock, which means they need to be fed with constant streams of waste, with fossil fuels such as gas or oil being retained as backup in case the waste ‘feedstock’ at any point is insufficient or does not produce enough energy (lacks sufficient calorific value) when burned.

In order to keep its plant fired, the island of Madeira sends 89% of its waste to incineration, but even that is insufficient. To ensure that maximum waste is earmarked for burning, it has had to stop all organic waste recycling.

In October, the European Investment Bank refused to help finance an incinerator in Belgrade on the grounds that would prevent Serbia from reaching its targets on recycling and the circular economy as part of the process of joining the EU.

If built in Israel, the incinerators would be operated privately for the first 25 years as part of  build, operate, transfer (BOT) arrangements with private companies. To guarantee stability, these companies would want to lock local authorities into long term contracts for waste supply. This is what has happened in many places overseas. But what happens if the local authority finds that it cannot meet the demand?

In Baltimore, in the US, the owner of a waste company is reportedly suing the county government for damages of over $32 million for failing to supply sufficient ‘feedstock’ as it contractually agreed.

The ministry’s former Chief Scientist comments

Sinaia Netanyahu, the ministry’s former Chief Scientist (whose position has not been filled since she left in late 2017) is today a consultant to several communities in the area of the Maale Adumim waste to energy plant plan. She is particularly worried by the fact that the Clean Air Act and the enforcement that goes with it does not apply in the West Bank and that the public has not been consulted.

She hopes that with a new minister in post, the ministry will now carry out a thorough, professional examination of all the waste treatment options and combinations on economic, environmental and public health grounds.

“The EU waste management hierarchy is not a doctrine that should be sanctified, but it presents a logical approach,” she told the Times of Israel. “Of all the possibilities, reducing waste must be a top priority. The data shows that our per capita waste has continued to rise, along with population growth, which means that so far, the policies have failed to motivate the public to reduce waste, to create a market for recycling and to establish an effective circular economy. These failures must be addressed before any other action is taken.”

Sinaia Netanyahu, former Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry. (Government Press Office)

Netanyahu said that it was critical to implement source separation for all wet and dry waste, so that an optimal level of valuable economic materials could be taken out and recycled, and that the full chain of facilities was created locally so that suitable materials could be recycled and fed back into the economy. “The lack of local raw materials and the economic and environmental costs of mining them should provide sufficient incentive for the extraction of materials from waste and the development of a circular economy,” she said

She added, “Today, the aims must be to promote clean renewable energy and to carefully manage national resources and not to subsidize old polluting technologies. It is also critical to educate both the public and industry about the circular economy and to accept that behavioral change is a process and it takes time.”

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