This article was produced by ZAVIT, a news agency focused on science and the environment launched by The Israeli Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences.
Every year, Israel produces about 5.3 million tons of municipal and commercial waste, at a volume growth rate of two percent. By 2050, the country had planned to recycle 50 percent of its total waste; however, currently, the volume of recycling has only reached 25 percent.
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Although close to half of all the generated waste is biodegradable, most of it is dumped in landfills. Just like the rest of the world, Israel’s biggest challenge lies in the handling and recycling of the increasing amounts of plastic waste.
According to the Ministry of Environmental Protection, Israel has some 20,000 facilities for collecting plastic waste, most of which is carried out by private companies that work in coordination with local authorities. So the question remains: why are Israel’s recycling figures so dismal?
The “Packaging Law” did not meet its target
In 2011, the “Packaging Law” was enacted in Israel, requiring the manufacturer or importer of packaged products to recycle the waste according to the recycling targets set by law. Those recycling targets, set for all types of plastic packaging, came into effect with a volume of 15 percent in 2011, rose to 22.5 percent in 2012 and kept on climbing in the following years.
In the first few years, the Ministry of Environmental Protection expected the recycling market in Israel to expand as a result of the implementation of the law, and lead to the establishment of sorting and recycling infrastructures for plastic waste and the creation of new jobs.
“The law should have created an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the amount of plastic entering the market. However, in practice this did not happen for a variety of reasons, such as inexpensive substitutes for packaging production and inadequate enforcement by the Ministry of Environmental Protection,” says Professor Ofira Ayalon, Head of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Management at the University of Haifa.
The only factory in Israel to recycle PET (polyethylene-terephthalate from which plastic bottles are made) plastic waste, the Aviv plant, recently folded, and now, the country’s entire plastic waste will be transported overseas. The closure of the plant was due to a decline in the prices of raw materials for plastic production, which prompted manufacturers to purchase new materials rather than the recycled plastic from the plant.
Moreover, according to Ayalon, the Packaging Law is not adequately enforced. The law permits the export of only 20 percent of plastic waste abroad, but in the absence of enforcement and economic incentives, the recycling corporations decided to transport all waste elsewhere.
There is no official data on the quantities of plastic waste exported from Israel, but it is believed that the situation is not significantly different from what is happening in the EU. In 2016, Europe collected about 8.4 million tons of plastic waste of which 1.6 million tons were sent to China, the largest plastic waste importer in the world. As of January 1, 2018, China banned the import of 24 kinds of materials, including PET, effectively overriding the possibility of importing waste into the country.
“It is important to note that the recycling capacity of the Aviv plant is 9,000 tons a year, which is relatively small compared to the actual quantities of plastic we consume,” says Ayalon. “The Aviv plant has worked mainly with PET plastic, but what happened, for instance, with milk containers, white cups, and packaging made of other plastics?”
The closure of the factory is indeed very unfortunate, but it is essential to understand that it did not really provide a solution for all plastic thrown in the trash in Israel.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection said: “The ministry requested through the Maintenance of Cleanliness Fund to support the ongoing operation of factories of the same type as Aviv Industries, but received some pushback from representatives of the Ministry of Finance and the local government.”
Funding for research is imperative
“It is essential to examine in-depth solutions like plastic recycling and the conversion of plastic into fuel, but we must not shoot from the hip and apply potential solutions off-the-cuff. Rather, every solution must be examined from a technological, an economic, and an environmental standpoint,” Ayalon says. “This will also require the Ministry of Environmental Protection to fund research on this subject, which has not
happened for years,” she adds.
Currently, there are no active studies on plastic waste management funded by the Ministry. The most recent study was completed in 2013 and aimed to examine the best treatment solutions for plastic waste (municipal, agricultural and industrial) in terms of environmental and economic cost-benefit, based on a life cycle analysis.
“In order to determine the ideal process, various treatment solutions and technologies were reviewed,” the ministry said. “The Ministry of Environmental Protection believes that with the planning of a waste action plan, additional and innovative studies should be included in the field, and the work will be published in 2019 and will include a detailed work plan for implementing the policy.”
Change is possible
Despite the gloomy picture, promising efforts are being made to turn things around. Government institutions, as well as private businesses, opted to promote plastic energy recovery solutions. For instance, the Nesher plant and the cities of the Dan region have invested in a new technological solution that seeks to rid 20-25 percent of the waste produced in the area by turning household trash into low-emission fuel.
Another Israeli venture called Plastic2Nrg developed a technology that converts plastic waste into electricity. The process is based on a unique oxidation methodology developed at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and enables a large energy output of up to 6KWh of 1kg of plastic, producing clean energy at low temperatures, efficiently and without pollution.
Tel Aviv-based UBQ Materials has made headlines for its innovative solution to convert household waste into sustainable bio-based materials. In this process unsorted organic and plastic waste is dried, shredded and subsequently reduced to a homogenous, almost molecular substance by an advanced conversion reactor system. According to the developers, the process is energy efficient and environmentally sound as no emissions are produced, no water utilized and no waste left behind. Afterward, the material is compounded into marketable pellets which can serve as feedstock for new products.
However, despite the apparent advancements, recycling is not the ultimate solution. It makes it indeed possible to re-use some of the raw materials and reduce pressure on landfills and soil contamination, but in the long run, it will be public awareness, regulations and political leadership that will make a lasting change.
One good example of such is the implementation of a fee on disposable plastic bags in Israel, which came into effect on January 1, 2017. By the summer of 2018, it had already brought about an 80 percent drop in the consumption of plastic bags, according to the Ministry of Environmental Protection.
These examples indicate that the global plastic crisis can only be solved by treating the root cause – that is, consume far fewer products containing plastic and try to avoid disposable plastic products that turn into trash within minutes, but will remain in the environment almost forever.