Israel Recycles

Israeli streetside recycling containers for paper (right) and plastic bottles and bags, CDs, and batteries (left)
Streetside recycling containers for paper (right) and plastic bottles and bags, CDs, and batteries (left)

During Chanukah we took the Bernstein granddaughters to the Israel Museum to see a light show and some exhibits. At one point we bought them something to drink. Yael and Adina threw their empty bottles in the trash, but Yocheved handed hers to me to hold. “I can’t find a michzur,” she said, using the Hebrew word for recycling.

It seems like everybody in Israel recycles. Our water recycling is the best in the world; no other country reuses as much of its water. That may be one of the reasons that Israel, according to the UN, is the only country in the world in which desert land is decreasing.

Solid waste is also heavily recycled. Recycling containers of various colors are ubiquitous: gray bins for paper, gradually being replaced by green or blue ones, bright or dark green for plastic bottles and bags, CDs, and batteries.

It was not always so. It has been less than twenty years that Israelis have been tossing their plastic bottles in collection cages. It started as a private initiative by a small group of English-speaking young professionals in Jerusalem. They decided their group needed to have a purpose, other than socializing. Coming primarily from the United States, where recycling bottles had been practiced for years, they decided on a recycling initiative. It would be something new in Jerusalem that no one had done before, and would be a public service as well.

They quickly realized that they needed to locate a company that recycled materials. It took some time to locate one in the north of the country. Incredibly, this company imported plastic bottles from Europe. It turned the bottles into plastic bags and the bottle caps became the raw material for park benches. Members of the group thought that was odd. Why import plastic to recycle and then export the product? Especially when there were so many bottles discarded here every day.

They made a deal with the company. If the group put collection containers in public places, the company would send trucks to empty them regularly.

Now they needed permission from the city to put the containers out. This took much discussion and negotiation, but they finally reached an agreement for a pilot project. If the group raised money to pay for seventy containers, the city would allow them to be distributed in three neighborhoods. The recycling company would send trucks to empty the containers every two weeks.

The containers, basically large wire cages, were installed. The recycling trucks came every two weeks to empty the overflowing cages. The company increased the schedule to every week, then twice a week. A quick survey discovered that not only were locals depositing bottles in the containers, but people from other neighborhoods were bringing their bottles to be recycled as well.

The city, impressed by the amount of bottles being deposited, decided it was successful even before the pilot was completed. They met with the group to make plans to expand recycling. If the group raised money for more collection cages, the city would pay for additional ones.

And then the city took over recycling, putting bins out in every neighborhood.

Yocheved’s empty water bottle spent about an hour in my purse. I even carried it home on the bus. We took a slightly longer route than usual from the bus stop so we could walk past a michzur. She dropped the bottle in the collection container with a happy smile.

 Today the large recycling bins are everywhere. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere in the country without passing them, Israel Museum excepted. (To be fair to the museum, it does have containers designated for bottles in the eating areas). Most of the bins are emptied by trucks from the Aviv Plastics Company, located near Beer Sheva. The old wire bottle collection cages still stand in some places, but they are being replaced by new multipurpose bins.

Israeli recycling bin: wood box with slit for CDs, below that small hole for inserting used batteries
Recycling bin: wood box with slit for CDs, below that small hole for inserting used batteries

The new bins are easily identifiable by their bright green color. The ends of the bins are solid. One end is decorated with a hole in the shape of a vine. The “leaves” of the vine are for stuffing plastic bags in. At the other end a wood box with a slit across it is labeled “CD.” Below that, a hole labeled “sollelot” serves to collect used batteries. There is even a panel on many of the cages for hanging notices to the community, such as classes, death notices, and apartments for rent. The labels on the various holes don’t prevent people from throwing plastic bags in with bottles, or batteries into nearby trash bins, but they do help.

Plastic recycling has spread across the country. According to a 2014 survey, 80% of the people recycle plastic, except for residents of the capital.  Less than half of Jerusalem’s residents do it, despite the evidence from the often full-to-the-top plastic recycling bins in my neighborhood.  

The same type of bin stands in most cities and towns, usually next to the large round containers designed to collect paper. These containers say they are for collecting all kinds of paper, but apparently people deposit inappropriate materials. New posters have started appearing pasted to the bins, listing exactly what should be deposited therein: newspaper, white and colored paper, light weight cardboard containers. In some business areas, like the shuk or the shopping area on Kanfei Nesharim street near us, large fenced-in cages are designated for corrugated cardboard containers.

No one recycles glass on the same scale. In order for a recycling effort to work, you need someone to take the collected materials and do something with it. Stores take back soda, beer, and wine bottles on which there is a deposit of 30 agorot, about 8 cents. But most glass bottles, such as the ones olive oil, vinegar, and juice come in, are not recycled. Someone should start collecting glass bottles to melt down to make new glass. With all the olive oil and wine consumed in this country, I’m sure they would do well.

Walking past the a green collection cage one day, I saw two boys in

Boys fishing plastic bottles from older style recycling bin, Jerusalem
Boys fishing plastic bottles from older style recycling bin, Jerusalem

it, wading through the waist high plastic bottles. I wondered, have we become so enamored of recycling we are even recycling children?

Later in the day, as I walked past the playground, I realized what the boys had been doing. Children were stomping on empty soda bottles until they were flat. Sitting on a flattened soda bottle increases your speed when going down a sliding board, making the tame piece of playground equipment much more fun. The ingenuity of children at play is the best recycling tool of all.

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