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In Israel, composting and recycling programs in new ecology push

Laborers in Jerusalem collecting plastic containers for recycling from a plastic recycling container. (Yossi Zamir )

Laborers in Jerusalem collecting plastic containers for recycling from a plastic recycling container. (Yossi Zamir )

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The still-new recycling center in the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Jerusalem is fairly quiet on a crisp winter afternoon. Several people drive in to drop off their recycling — from old printers and batteries to aluminum pans, plastic containers and cardboard — in bins clearly labeled for each type of material.

These people, however, are the outliers.

Most Jerusalemites don’t recycle at all. The city has no curbside recycling program and, as in the rest of Israel, recycling is not mandatory here.

“In the State of Israel, we’re used to just dumping our garbage,” Yakutiel Tzipori, a spokesperson for the Environment Ministry, told JTA. “We’re a developing country and everything else was more important, like security and defense; the environment just wasn’t at the top of the list. But now that’s changing.”

In 2011, the ministry received a relatively large influx of cash from the state budget — approximately $74 million — that helped pay for new recycling sorting facilities, bins for composting in certain cities and environmental education.

It may be a long road ahead, but proponents of recycling say that little by little, Israelis are learning to become more conscious of their environment.

Israel started its recycling program in 1999 with plastic bottle recycling cages on street corners, then a project of various youth movements that was later adopted by the municipalities. The government also implemented a deposit law for beverage containers, expanding a decades-old program that applied to some glass bottles to all glass and cans.

According to Chagit Hoshen, the marketing manager of ELA Recycling, the nonprofit organization that handles recycling collection countrywide, an average of 41 percent of plastic bottles were recycled in 2011.

It’s not just bottles.

The government is spending some $90 million on trial recycling programs for composting — separating wet and dry garbage — in 31 towns and cities, including infrastructure and local education.

It’ll be a while before Israelis in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are separating their garbage for curbside pickup because those cities still don’t have the infrastructure and budget for it, but they’re already moving ahead with composting.

Jerusalem has more than 20 communal composting gardens where residents can learn about gardening and bring their waste to be composted.

Oded Meshulam, who teaches seminars on compost and makes and sells composters, says composting is important “because wet, heavy garbage is a significant addition to the landfill.”

Modiin, a city of some 75,000 midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, already is learning to compost.

With an environmentally aware population and the physical infrastructure to succeed, including large garbage rooms for apartment buildings and houses, as well as success in recycling paper and bottles, “we knew we wanted to cooperate,” said Eyal Shani of the city’s municipal environmental unit.

Modiin is also home to Hava and Adam, an eight-acre ecological farm whose name plays on the biblical Adam and Eve and "hava," the Hebrew word for farm. Established by local educators, environmentalists and social activists as an ecological educational center, the farm aims to live by example and has always composted, recycled and built with all of its waste or trash.

When Modiin began planning its recycling program, it was clear that the Hava would be involved in teaching Modiiners how to separate their waste at source.

Beginning last spring, the farm and municipality began gathering forces, finding people who were interested in learning and teaching kids and parents how to separate trash at home, using the brown composting bins being handed out by the city.

“When kids see me on the street they yell, ‘Brown bin, brown bin!’ ” said Jo Maissel, a tour guide and mother of three who now goes to classrooms and private homes to teach them how to use the bins. “My son calls me a ‘rubbish teacher.’ ”

There have been glitches, such as too much liquid gathering at the bottom of the bins (they advise putting a newspaper at the bottom), or confusion between the blue, brown and green bins in the communal garbage rooms, but residents mostly seem willing to take on composting.

But Modiin is an unusual case.

“Just try this in a city like Beersheva,” Maissel said. “It’ll never happen.”

Modiin is investing approximately $400,000 per year for the program, on top of the $2.6 million or so it spends each year on sanitation removal. Yet there are the “hidden levies” every city pays for dumping garbage in landfills, Shani says. If the city really succeeds in separating garbage, its fines will be lowered.

“It’s a project that requires a change of behavior," he said, "and that will be a big part of its success.”

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