|Israel's Disappointing Brand of Environmentalism|
|Saturday, 17 November 2012 00:00 | Written by Shira Siegel | Blog Entry|
For a young country that has transformed itself, despite scant resources, from proverbial no-man’s-land to thriving slice of the Middle East in 60-odd years, Israel and its people place environmental concerns and recycling surprisingly close to the bottom of their priority lists. Israel is a politically fragile state; people are more concerned about security, religious politics and whether or not they’ll be blown to pieces in a suicide bombing or rocket attack than about lobbying their municipalities for recycling collection or composting.
I find this to be ironic considering how proud Israelis are of their numerous and unusual natural wonders: the Dead Sea, the Mediterranean coast, natural canyons, meteoric craters, coral reefs off the Red Sea, spectacular ancient valleys and hills, and more. The pride Israelis exude for their natural surroundings is embedded in their culture in the form of tiyulim, or nature trips. This tradition dictates that people of all ages and health levels experience the natural beauty of the land during all vacation times and on a regular basis with school groups.
But this dedication to nature curiously does not translate to ecological awareness or environmental conservation. Israel usually puts its garbage in desert landfills, and what it doesn't bury it incinerates. I observed a covered landfill outside of Tel Aviv, and was told that there is at least one landfill that has been covered over to serve as a park. Few municipalities have recycling programs; if they do, residents have to physically deliver their recyclables to a specific location. Most empty plastic and all glass bottles can be brought to any store for a small deposit return (equivalent to a few American pennies). But most people do not take advantage of this and instead throw these bottles in the trash. I did observe a few street people recovering bottles from garbage cans, but this was not done to the extent, for example, as in Brazil; there are not “enough” poor people to go around and dig through the trash for bottles to return.
In the big cities, local government has placed metal cages on some sidewalks that serve as large receptacles for empty bottles. Some of the cages can also be used for depositing batteries, CDs, DVDs and cans. The idea is that people will collect and hold onto their empty bottles and then put them in the cages until the municipality takes them for recycling. Again, this is not a realistic option because there seems to be little feeling of necessity or importance with regard to conservation or recycling; people do not want to take the extra steps of separating and dropping off their bottles. (My cousin and I were cleaning up after a party, and after he threw a bottle into the garbage, I inquired: Don’t you recycle here? His response: “We do, just not right now.”) Clearly, the government does not place a high priority on these issues, and there does not appear to be much of a green movement.
Water is another matter. Because Israel’s lower half is all desert (keep in mind that Israel is about the size of New Jersey), people are extraordinarily concerned about water conservation. Low-flow shower heads are the norm; signs encouraging water conservation are posted in public bathrooms and on water fountains; and there are frequently restrictions on residential water usage (only water outdoor plants in the early morning or late at night, no car washing, etc.). During the brief spring rainy season, if the average amount of rain for an area does not fall, people are collectively concerned; rainfall or lack thereof is a topic of constant worry and conversation. Yet under the previous Health Minister, it was determined that greywater could not be used in toilets or to water public plants! Furthermore, Israel has developed sophisticated desalinization techniques that it has sold to other countries, but failed to adopt itself.
How can a country so paranoid about its water consumption not do everything possible to avoid water waste? Why is Israel so unconcerned about the preservation of the rest of its unique environment? The only explanation I can determine is that the green movement is not an emerging paradigm, as it is in other countries. While there is a small Green Party involved in national government, its influence is negligible. The political parties that have the most influence don’t see the value in most green initiatives and therefore do not promote them.
Israel is a very car-dependent nation. They believe that building roads is a necessity, generally without regard for their effects on plants and animals. Outsiders seemed concerned that Israel is becoming entirely paved over. But there are two new transportation initiatives in Israel that provide a glimmer of environmentally friendly hope: the recently completed passenger train that goes swiftly between the three major cities of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva; and the light rail that is being built in the heart of Jerusalem to reduce congestion. Tel Aviv has also taken measures to create bike lanes and actively encourages biking, while a car-sharing program has recently officially launched there.
Even though I am fascinated by Israel as a natural wonderland and the intense intricacies of its politics, I am shocked and disappointed with Israel’s efforts at ecological conservation.
Fortunately, contrary to what I witnessed as a visitor there, it seems the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection is quite proactive. Its minister recently announced that the government will be investing 50 million shekels (more than $12 million) in green technology over the next three years. Several proposals for spending this money include the financing of compost sites, waste separation, environmental education and the recycling of construction-project wastes. Penalties for illegal dumping of all wastes (particularly those from construction and demolition) are now being enforced. Israel has also begun river restoration and protection of open spaces. At this point, actions being considered (such as creating new facilities for processing recyclable materials and advancing alternatives to landfills) are more numerous than ones in progress. Hopefully, though, these first steps will lead to a robust environmental movement in Israel.
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