Tag Archives: Recycling

Understanding Water and Water Bills

One of the secondary water clarifiers at the Shafdan water reclamation plant near Ashkelon, Israel.
One of the secondary water clarifiers at the Shafdan water reclamation plant near Ashkelon.

Our first water bill was a complete mystery. With the help of a dictionary, I managed to translate it, but knowing what the words meant didn’t help. On one page the amount we used was classified according to “Apartment” (16) and “Main” (305). Below that, it listed the sum of all the water we used in the two month billing period: 17.167. It was broken down as Private: 16 m3), Joint: 1.167 m3. I understood that “Apartment” equaled “Private,” but “Main” (305) certainly did not equal “Joint.” But at least now I knew what measurement I was dealing with–mare cubic meters.

After a few questions, I learned that “Joint” was our share of water used for the grass & trees in the courtyard and washing the stairs and hallways.

But on the next page of the bill, I found a different story. Although the total amount we used was the same, it was divided differently. Price 1: 13.81, Price 2: 3.36. The only things I understood about the bill were that the tax was 17% and that I had to pay 147.15 NIS within three weeks.

I’m not the only new oleh (immigrant) to find my bill confusing. When my ulpan teacher asked the class if we would like her to explain our utility bills, everyone in the class said, “Yes!”

That’s when I found out that pricing is one part of the country’s program to manage the water supply.

We are a desert country. The lack of rain in the land of Israel is an ancient problem. The Bible describes it dozens of times. The book of Genesis describes how Abraham lived here only a short time before a drought caused him to move temporarily to Egypt. In Deuteronomy, God threatens to withhold rain as a punishment if the Israelites did not obey his laws. Elijah the prophet declared a drought in Kings I that lasted three years.

The passage of millennia did not solve problem. Lack of drinking water caused the Crusaders to lose the Holy Land to the armies of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187. The Christians took what should have been a good defensive position at the top of a hill. They neglected to check one thing in advance. They had no water source. It was summer. Although Muslim history declares the battle of the Horns of Hattin a great victory, they did not have to fight very hard. The Crusaders were defeated by the heat, sun, and dehydration.

During the mandate period, the British were so worried about water, they commissioned a special study of the situation. The report concluded that the land would never be able to support more than 1,000,000 people. The aquifers were too small and the rainfall was too unreliable.

Today, rain is still unreliable. The level in the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), the main source of fresh water for over 50 years, is frequently so low, an emergency is declared. So much water has been pumped from the coastal aquifer, sea water has infiltrated. What remains is undrinkable. Yet Israel now has enough water to support a population of 8,000,000. If you include Gaza, as the British did, more than ten million people, live in a land that the British said could not support a tenth of that number. Additionally, Israel has a thriving agricultural economy and exports water to Jordan.

How is all this possible?

The first measure was a national emphasis of saving water. Every child in Gan learns the slogan “Kol tipa khashuv” (Every drop is important). A friend told me that on a family visit to Niagara Falls, the adults stood amazed at the power of all the water. Their five year old stared at the falls only a moment before declaring ”Azeh bizbuz mayim!” (What a waste of water).

After our aliyah, we soon learned how to wash our hands and take showers: Turn on water, get wet, turn off water, apply soap, turn on water, rinse, turn off water, dry. I even learned to wash dishes in a water-saving manner, with the help of Maya’s blog post, “How to wash dishes like an Israeli.” 

The pricing of water plays a large part in water-saving. You can use as much as you want, as long as you are willing to pay for it. The key is the graduated cost. As my ulpan teacher explained, each person is assumed to need a certain amount of water per month, for which you pay “Price 1.” Given the evidence of my bill, I assume my personal allotment is about 6.9 m3/month (a little more than 1800 gallons). To make sure that each dwelling unit is charged appropriately, the water company requires a copy of the official ID of every resident. One of the first things new parents do is send notice of the birth of a baby to the water company.

If you exceed the basic allotted amount, as almost everyone does, larger amounts of usage are charged a higher price. At this time, Price 1 is 6.546 NIS/m3 and Price 2 is 10.536 NIS/m3. If you use more than you are allotted at this second level, there is a third level of pricing. In her explanation of the water bill, my teacher only said Price 3 was extremely high. Although we still don’t know how much “extremely high” is, we hope we never are so profligate with water that we find out.

Another way Israel lessens its dependence on rain is by recycling. As I learned when I toured the Shafdan water reclamation plant, Israel reclaims 85% of its wastewater. Spain, the country with the second highest reclamation record, recycles about 19%. At Shafdan, the tour guide said their output meets drinking water standards. However, the water from Shafdan remains separate from the drinking water stream. Drinking water flows throughout the country in white pipes; reclaimed water flows in pink or purple pipes.

Pink color of drip irrigation hose signifies it carries reclaimed (recycled) water to garden.
Pink color of drip irrigation hose signifies it carries reclaimed (recycled) water to garden.

Reclaimed water is used only for agriculture and gardens. To eliminate any danger from effluent contamination, it is not used for crops that water touches directly, such as strawberries and cucumbers. Rather, the pink and purple drip irrigation pipes carry water to fruit trees and other crops that do not touch the ground.

The third factor that has increased the country’s supply is desalination. We have five desalination plants which together supply 55% of our drinking water. Israel is the world leader in desalination technology. IDE, our largest builder of desalination plants, has installed plants in forty countries, including several in China. The Israeli-designed Carlsbad Desalination Plant near San Diego produces 190,000 m3 of water daily, supplying 10% of that city’s needs. And here in Israel, five desalination plants discharge about 600 million m3 per year.    

This sign was the only thing inside the desalination plant that we were allowed to photograph.
This sign was the only thing inside the desalination plant that we were allowed to photograph.

Fresh water production is so important, each plant observes strict security procedures. On a recent tour of the Sorek desalination plant in Ashkelon, we were instructed not to take any photographs. And in case we forgot that instruction, signs in several languages remind visitors that no photography is allowed.

Thus, our reliance on the limited rainfall is nil. Because of these factors, we have enough water to meet the needs of the whole country. Additionally, Israel supplies Jordan with one hundred million cubic meters of water yearly.

But despite our abundant supply, newspapers still regularly report the Kinneret level. Every two months our bill reminds us that we live in a desert country, where water is so precious we must pay for every drop. And, God forbid, if we use more than is deemed appropriate, we’ll pay “Price 3” for those excess drops.

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.