Tel Aviv University researchers study how to get Israelis to stop littering public spaces.
By Dafna Maor | Nov. 19, 2014

Dirt in the streets, debris left in yards, mounds of garbage in national parks and along hiking trails. Why aren’t public spaces in Israel cleaner and what can be done about it? New research provides several possible approaches to the problem.

Once a year, a young Danish man from Copenhagen explains, residents of the city have a three-day festival. Everyone comes out onto the streets to eat, drink, dance and celebrate. As he described the scene in the Danish capital, he surveys a Tel Aviv street and explains that when the three-day festival is over, the whole city is covered with garbage … like here. But this was an ordinary day in Tel Aviv.

Perhaps the Danish visitor didn’t display particularly good European manners, and certainly Israel is not one big garbage dump, but the words stung. It’s hard to deny that much of Israel is in fact dirty, certainly more so than many parts of Europe. After the fall Jewish holidays, there are clear reminders around the country of the visits by masses of people to nature spots: empty plastic bottles, candy bar wrappers, pieces of toilet paper fluttering around in the wind.

With the holidays behind us, we are back home from the country’s beautiful beaches now strewn with litter, streams flowing with plastic bags and hiking paths decorated with wet wipes. And even our neighborhoods are not as spic and span as the suburbia of many American television series. Too often, our neighborhoods are home to overflowing trash containers and building materials left behind by careless building contractors. And at this point, we hardly relate to cigarette butts or disposable coffee cups as litter. Instead they have become a form of urban adornment.

Pollution in public spaces in Israel is not limited of course to garbage. They are also afflicted by the noise of car horns, car alarms triggered for no reason and construction work during mid-afternoon hours when traditionally Israelis have had quiet time to rest. And our streets are filled with a range of obstacles, from traffic signs to other signage from any number of sources, both public and private.

The exterior walls of our apartment buildings are covered with air conditioning drainage pipes, hooks, metal frames and improvised accessories that look like some kind of malignant growth. If you venture inside, however, you are likely to find people scrubbing their apartments until they are spotlessly clean. Standards in people’s own homes are clearly different from what prevails on the street.

So is Israel really dirty and are Israelis truly lacking when it comes to proper comportment in public places? An environmental performance study conducted by Yale University in 2012 ranked Israel in a respectable 39th place among 178 nations surveyed, with particularly good marks when it comes to water and sanitation, and even good marks for air quality. But what does that mean?

Considerations of sustainability

International standards of cleanliness include factors such as air and water quality, rate of recycling and quality of sanitation, but they don’t reflect Israelis’ habits in public places. Considerations of environmental sustainability have pushed aside basic considerations of cleanliness.

But the subject did get the attention of a study conducted since last year by Avital Eshet and Maya Negev of the Hartog School of Government and Policy at Tel Aviv University, in cooperation with the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. Their research was based on studies conducted on the subject around the world.

While sustainability studies track garbage from the moment it lands in the trash can until it is recycled or otherwise disposed of, this Israeli study sought to follow the course of the trash even before it gets collected. There is no global measure on the subject, says Eshet, “and in Israel itself there is no formal measure of cleanliness other than for the country’s beaches.”

Eshet and Negev were recruited to conduct their study at the initiative of Phillip Weissberg, an immigrant from the United States to Israel, who in hiking around the country was embarrassed by the filth. He lived on Long Island and showed his children how it is there after a day’s vacation at the beach, the researchers recounted. Everything stays clean. He believed that change was possible and sought to conduct the study to determine what had to happen to bring it about.

Eshet says they directed their research to places that had managed to made quantitative progress rather than looking at a spotlessly clean place such as Switzerland. The most important study that they examined was conducted over a period of four years in Australia and entailed 52,000 inspections and about 10,000 interviews.

“We learned a lot from the case of Australia,” says Negev. “They managed to reduce trash in public spaces by more than 40%. That’s encouraging because it shows that it is possible to change and have an effect.” And there was an interesting finding from the Australian study: There is no single profile for someone who litters or otherwise dirties public spaces. Men tend to do so somewhat more than women, and people are more likely to do so when they are in the company of a large group (although people over the age of 65 are more likely to do so when they are alone). And people with university education are offenders only to a slightly lower extent than those with just a high school education. The fact that there is no single profile at work is important when it comes to finding a solution.

But what is Israel’s problem in imposing somewhat higher standards on public cleanliness? The accepted wisdom is that it relates to culture. Israelis say they are not Europeans, so it’s no wonder that they are not similar in character to the citizens of Switzerland, Norway, Latvia and Luxembourg, the four cleanest countries in the world based on the environmental performance ranking.

It should be remembered, however, that Europe wasn’t always that way. There was a time when horse manure and smog filled the streets of European cites. So if Europe’s cities have become among the world’s cleanest (some after they were virtually destroyed in the two world wars), why not Israel’s cities?

Culture doesn’t matter so much

Negev noted that differences in cleanliness among countries don’t necessarily stem from cultural differences, but rather from the extent to which investment is made in infrastructure and the extent of urban density. “A study was done of ultra-Orthodox society, which is perceived as dirtier,” she says. “When an older, poor ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem was compared with a secular neighborhood with similar characteristics, it turned out that they were both equally dirty. When they looked at a new ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Beit Shemesh and a new secular neighborhood, they were both well cared for to the same degree.”

Differences in public cleanliness and order in various places around Israel also stem from municipal policies and planning. New neighborhoods where residents also pay higher municipal taxes tend to be cleaner than older neighborhoods, and when someone sees that things are clean, he is less likely to litter himself. But a backyard full of junk will encourage other passersby to add their own share.

In Israel, dirtying a public place is a criminal offense and there is also a fund to maintain public places clean that spends over 200 million shekels (nearly $52 million) a year, split among local municipalities and professional activities.

Summarizing the study, Eshet and Negev argue that the Environmental Protection Ministry perceives the issue of cleanliness as more a matter of aesthetics, and a private matter. “The assumption is that education regarding sustainability will lead to maintaining cleanliness,” they write.

And while Israel is one of the leading and most innovative countries in the world when it comes to agricultural technology, water conservation and renewable energy, and though its medical system also gets very high marks, it is far from on top on the issue of cleanliness of public spaces.

“If there is the desire, results can be achieved,” says Negev. “In Australia, they did it through a coalition of all of the relevant players: government agencies, academic institutions and private entities, and divided up areas of responsibility. The solution includes three components: education, infrastructure and enforcement. It sounds simplistic, but the important thing is combining the three. That’s what produces significant results.”

There needs to be recognition that in addition to all of the other issues facing the country, public civility is essential to any healthy society. Refraining from unnecessarily blowing one’s horn is part of it. City planning that frees up the sidewalks for pedestrians and keeps the areas free of obstacles that might be difficult for the elderly or the sight-impaired to navigate is another, and doesn’t require that Israel wait for peace treaties with all its neighbors. A policeman who reprimands a driver for holding up traffic should also do so to a driver who honks to try to get things moving faster.

Israeli society has already proven in the past that it is capable of assimilating an appreciation for the importance of a healthy environment and the protection of nature. It was demonstrated, for example, in the campaign not to pick wildflowers that the Society for the Protection of Nature launched in the 1960s, which saved thousands of types of flowers from extinction. There is no reason why a success like that can’t be replicated in Israel’s urban areas and in open public spaces around the country. That’s where culture can evolve and change behavior, even without a major allocation of manpower.