Opinion: Government’s decision to remove plastic waste bins from many neighborhoods, putting supermarkets in charge of accepting used plastic from customers may have advantages, but it has mostly created inconvenience and even more waste

Baruch Stein | Published: 02.11.22

In addition to sale prices, a mandatory deposit is now withheld when buying nearly all drinks that come in plastic bottles. Empty drink bottles are returned to stores that collect them for recycling and return the deposit. Prior to December 1, this was only done for bottles of up to 1.5 liters.

Liquid laundry detergent, cooking oil, shampoo, and many other items come in the same types of bottles used for drinks and can be recycled together with drink bottles but the deposit only applies to drink bottles. In the meantime, Jerusalem has been removing cages used for recycling plastics under the pretense that the expanded deposit program renders them unnecessary.

Milk bottles at Israel supermarkets
Milk bottles at Israel supermarkets (Photo: Meirav Crystal)

Since I no longer have a cage near my house, I have gone to several grocery stores asking them to take my empty hummus containers. None would. I try to use old hummus containers to store food instead of buying Tupperware but there is a practical limit to the number I need. I drink almost nothing but tap water, in part to reduce the use of single-use plastics but society is nowhere near the elimination of these plastics.The advantages of having all plastic recycling collected through grocery stores are that it reduces the road traffic, costs and air pollution and simplifies the logistics involved in trucking the materials to their next destination and that the stores’ filter out nonrecyclables that get thrown in recycling containers. I recognize these advantages but let the grocery stores also be responsible for receiving all items that can be recycled together with drink bottles and let the deposit apply to these items as well.

Grocery stores do not like collecting recyclables, though. The bottles I return are mostly glass grape juice bottles that I use on Shabbat. Aside from the two I use to serve water, I take them in batches of ten. My most recent experience returning them was a few weeks ago at Osher Ad in Talpiot.

The store’s machine took about half of them and rejected the others for no explicable reason. At “customer service” (the kupah rashit) I was told that if the machine did not take them, that was the end of the story. After arguing, the lady called another employee to show me how to deposit the bottles in the machine. Together, he and I tried again but the machine still did not take them and the second employee contributed nothing to the effort.

Used plastic bottles
Used plastic bottles (Photo: Shutterstock)

I returned to the kupah rashit and after more arguing, the lady eventually took my bottles and gave me my deposit. This is the normal routine. At the kupah rashit lines and shouting are normal and the machine and kupah rashit are at opposite ends of the store.

There is a way to report stores that do not accept eligible bottles but when the bottles are in my hands I want to get rid of them, not file regulatory complaints and once the shouting is over and they have taken my bottles I have no patients left for regulatory complaints and I can no longer say they did not take my bottles. I have thought to complain about individual employees but at Osher Ad in Talpiot they do not wear name tags, do not give their names even when asked and on multiple occasions, employees have refused to direct me to managers.

There are other stores in the area but stores less than a certain size are not required to take bottles and though my experiences at the Shufersal grocery store across the street from Osher Ad in Talpiot tend to involve less screaming, their machine also rejects bottles that should be accepted and their kupah rashit also tends to have a line.

For many who had been accustomed to throwing plastics into the cages, the 30 agorot per bottle deposit is not worth this and even if they nominally increase the deposit or somehow force a change in the culture at grocery stores, it will still not inspire many who had no problem throwing plastics into cages to carry their garbage back to the store.

Plastic waste cage in Israel
Plastic waste cage in Israel

It is not just the plastic cages that have been disappearing either. Bins for metals and electronics have also been removed and just as stores do not take all recyclable plastics, they do not take vegetable cans or metals other than drink cans.

Environmental groups lobbied for the expanded deposit program for decades. Studies show that bottles that can be returned for money are less likely to be littered but the expanded deposit program does not replace the need for residential recycling. Unfortunately, Israeli politicians do not seem to think of recycling as a priority. It will be up to voters to inspire changes at the next election.

Baruch Stein is a writer living in Jerusalem, and his previous columns have appeared in media outlets in both the U.S. and Israel