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Israel’s effort to slash plastic pollution: artificial or elastic?

Indian men walk through a water canal polluted with plastic and other garbage in Mumbai, India, Monday, June 5, 2017. Monday marks the World Environment Day.
AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool

As the continued threat of plastic pollution creeps up on Israel’s shoreline, the 185 kilometer (113 mile) dazzling Mediterranean coastline that the country prides itself on faces increasing risk and ruin. Whilst the government claims it is enforcing new policies to tackle waste head-on, activists insist that Israel still lags way behind global efforts.

“On the whole, Israel remains a country with far too much litter, and the plastic which may provide people a solution for a few hours, will remain for millenia,” Professor Alon Tal, founder of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, told i24NEWS.

This week, Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (MoEP) touted the 80 percent reduction in the country’s plastic bag consumption, a year after a law charging supermarket shoppers 10 agorot (27 cents) for the bag was introduced. ‘In just one year, Israel halves plastic bags found in the sea’, read the title of a press release by the UN’s Environment Program who publicly praised the effort.

According to statistics released by the ministry on Sunday, the country reduced its plastic intake this year by a huge 7091 tonnes -- the equivalent to the weight of 400 buses. “The results speak for themselves,” Environmental Minister Ze’ev Elkin said in a statement.

“But, this is responding rather than preventing,” veteran activist Tal continued, adding that “it’s time we switch the paradigm. Israel has been decidedly weak on innovative, aggressive solutions.” He did however, acknowledge the ministry’s positive drive to incentivize local municipalities to undertake widespread clean-up projects.

One municipality in particular -- the coastal town of Herzliya -- is increasingly becoming a nation-wide exemplar in its efforts to become a “zero-waste” city; and the first in the country to stop its consumption of single-use plastic.

“It’s going really well,” Jonathan Jacobovitz, chairman of the municipalities tourism board, said at a gathering of environmental experts organized by grassroots movement Plastic-Free Israel on Wednesday.

“Seven months since the outset of the program and council buildings are now disposable plastic-free” he added, spelling out his intentions to replicate the model across kindergartens, schools and other plastic-reliant institutions.

Noel CELIS (AFP/File)

Herzliya, alongside other seaside Israel localities, has upped its efforts to implement ‘coastal clean-ups’ in a bid to preserve the beauty of the shorelines and protect the Mediterranean’s endangered marine life.

Humans, globally, over the past ten years have created enough plastic waste to fill four Mount Everests. It is expected that if plastic production continues at its current rate, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s ocean, the World Economic Forum said in a 2016 report.

And if shocking statistics of piling plastic precipices aren’t enough to convince those partaking in the global plastic binge to reduce their intake, perhaps images of coagulated garbage patches floating across large swathes of the Pacific Ocean will provide a visual persuasion.

Whilst cigarette butts, straws, bottle caps and plastic bags have been cited as the most common eyesores across the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, environmentalist activists argue that disposable plastic tableware is increasingly becoming the country’s most pressing ecological problem.

According to Maya Jacobs, CEO of the Zalul Environmental Association the issue is ingrained within Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Haredi culture that constitutes 12 percent of the population with its strict observance to Jewish laws.

“Usually a majority of these families tend to have more children and keeping a kosher kitchen -- which requires separating food into dairy and meat -- is easier for them with plastic disposable products as it save times, energy and workload,” Jacobs told i24NEWS.

“We see that religious people don’t care for the environment and there is no education for them in Israel,” she added steeping criticism on the MoEP for its failure to raise awareness in the community.

In just four years Israel’s estimated sales of disposables plastic tableware has grown by 51%, a 2014 survey by business information group Coface BDi claimed. Meanwhile, given the obvious demand across Israel, ‘Peamit.co’ a leading supplier of disposable packing products in Israel continues to open two or three new stores each year. The company was contacted by i24NEWS but did not respond to the request for comment.

CLAUDIO REYES (AFP/File)

“If you are into the environmental stuff then don’t eat on disposable plates, but I live now, and all this environmental stuff is no concern of mine,” Ron Goldenberg told Calcalist in an interview published earlier this month. “The moment you finish eating you put everything in the trash including the tablecloth, and you just sit back and relax.”

Durable, versatile and cheap, the perks of plastic are self-evident. Often used to guard against contamination in hospitals, prevent against toxic leaks and provide sterile containers for food preservation among a host of other purposes; the plastic industry is here to stay.

“It’s not about being perfect and plastic free, it’s about being conscious and leading by being a role model,” Stav Friedman, marine conservationists and founder of Plastic Free Israel said at her event, “one small example is to stop using ear cue-tips or start refusing straws” she added.

Whilst Israel lags behind global efforts, activists have lauded the European Union as an environmental leader. “We are relying on Europe to be our model,” Jacobs from Zalul said. In May of this year, the Parliament banned all disposable plastic products and announced efforts to promote eco-friendly alternatives.

Major corporations like Starbucks, Bacardi Rum, Marriott hotels, Alaska Airlines, and American Airlines followed suit and have publicly announced that they will phase out plastic straws in the coming years

When asked by i24NEWS why it fell short of expected standards, the ministry acknowledged its awareness of the EU Directive to increase collection and recycling targets for plastics, and said it was “examining the best way to implement recommendations from that proposal. However, this means “taking into account the unique characteristics of the State of Israel,” it concluded.

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