Garbage in Jerusalem, this year.
Garbage in Jerusalem, this year. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Zafrir Rinat

Apr 30, 2023

The rate of waste production in Israel is among the highest in the OECD, with 80 percent of it brought to landfills and a considerable part of it to illegal incinerators.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s environmental profile of its 38 member states released last week portrays Israel as a picture of a crowded society drowning in garbage, with a bleak environmental future.

When one also examines the Bank of Israel’s recent reports about the economic situation, as well as the trends expected at least until mid-century, the troubling issues become alarming.

In the last two decades Israel’s society has grown at a rate of close to 50 percent. For some reason, the central bank governor sees this as a blessing in a program of “Recommended strategic pillars of action” he submitted to the cabinet three months ago.

But there is no blessing in the intolerable density developing here and in the enormous burden it creates on the environment. Transportation is a clear example of this crisis. The kilometrage – the number of kilometers traveled by cars – has risen in the last decade by 4 percent, double the rate of population growth. Paradoxically, the hybrid and electric cars, which are supposed to benefit the environment, only make things worse. They reduce the fuel consumption, thus reducing the travel taxation’s ability to restrain its expansion. Currently almost a third of the new cars are hybrid or electric.

The rate of waste production per capita in Israel is among the highest in the OECD and continues to grow. In Norway, Denmark and Switzerland the amount per capita is bigger, but there the waste treatment is completely different. Only a small part of it is taken to landfills. In Israel some 80 percent is taken to landfills and large amounts of waste of various kinds are burned against the law. These burnings are one of the reasons that a large percentage of society is exposed to a high concentration of tiny contamination particles that penetrate the breathing system. The dirt in public areas is a clear symptom of the absence of public concern, of adequate infrastructure and of governance. Regrettably the OECD did not mention the exposure to noise as well. It would likely have found that Israel is leading by far in exposing its residents to noise of every kind, throughout the day and night.

Israel is also among the leaders in consuming raw materials whose production creates a negative environmental impact. The main reason is the need to build tens of thousands of housing units a year to deal with the population growth. Building material waste, produced in massive quantities, mostly finds its way to open areas.

There are also a number of impressive environmental achievements. The amount of the major air pollutants has been greatly reduced following the transition to natural gas and the use of various technologies to prevent pollution. The large cities’ sewage no longer flows to the sea. The sewage of the last large city that still pollutes the environment, Jerusalem, will soon be directed to a treatment facility. The quality of drinking water in Israel is good and the desalination facilities enable it to deal with years of rainwater shortage. Israel continues to be a world leader in recycling sewage fluids for irrigation. Last week the Water Authority submitted a master plan to set up a facility to accumulate and conduct sewage fluids, which are expected to be doubled by mid-century.

But the natural and environmental resources continue to be eroded and are disappearing rapidly. According to OECD figures, an especially high ratio of mammals, fowl and reptiles are in danger of extinction. This reflects the extensive damage to their natural habitats.

In Israel there’s a relatively high rate of protected areas, but they are divided into small areas and are harmed by the construction and development around them. These natural systems may fare even worse due to the negative impacts expected from the worsening climate crisis and a real improvement is required to protect them.

If the recent years’ governments reflect the kind of leadership coming in Israel in the next decades, the environmental situation will probably get worse. These governments continued to encourage the population growth and promoted planning that is based on new communities, wasting land resources. They also displayed inability to enforce environmental norms of managing waste on the local governments and on the public.

As Israel marches to the end of its first century, it needs urban strengthening and condensing, efficient mass transportation systems and an infrastructure of facilities for waste selection, recycling and producing energy. It needs to empower women and other groups in employment and education, which will lead, like in other countries, to reducing the birth rate. And of course it urgently needs to regulate its relations with the Palestinians and to end the occupation, so that they too can be integrated in similar trends. Without them it will not be possible to plan a joint future.

Regrettably, none of these changes are on the horizon.

אתר בנייה בתל אביב, בחודש שעבר. פסולת הבניין, שנוצרת בכמות אדירה, מגיעה בחלקה הגדול לשטחים הפתוחים
אתר בנייה בתל אביב, בחודש שעבר. פסולת הבניין, שנוצרת בכמות אדירה, מגיעה בחלקה הגדול לשטחים הפתוחים Credit: מוטי מילרוד