How Green Is My Landfill


Just southeast of Tel Aviv, a huge mountain peak looms over the highway below, harboring swarms of flies and wafting scents of decaying garbage down its sprouting hills. The manmade mound — called Hiriya — may contain a colossal pile of trash, but the landfill is quickly becoming Israel’s icon of environmentalism: a space to recycle waste, produce energy and cultivate greenery.

Hiriya, named for the former Arab village of al-Hiriya, served as Israel’s largest landfill from 1948 through 1999. During that time, flocks of birds posed a danger to aircraft at nearby Ben Gurion Airport, according to Danny Sternberg, former Hiriya engineer and current CEO of Ariel Sharon Park, which is located directly below the landfill. Ten years ago, the government closed thedump and converted it into Israel’s largest waste transfer station, and since 2001 the site has been home to several environmental innovations, including what is being billed as a revolutionary water-based recycling project. By 2011, Steinberg said, developers hope to open Hiriya to the public — not as an odorous garbage dump, but instead as 2,000 acres of sprawling green landscape filled with bike paths and wildlife, two and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park.

“It’s really the entrance to Israel — everybody who flies in sees this space,” Sternberg said. And revamping Hiriya is just one major example of the Tel Aviv area’s newfound efforts to become a greener, more sustainable place; the city is becoming increasingly filled with yellow recycling bins and new, tree-lined bike lanes.

Hiriya is part of no municipality and remains completely under national jurisdiction. Locally, the site is managed by the Dan Region Association of Towns Sanitation and Solid Waste Disposal board, half of whose members are from Tel Aviv, according to its chairman and deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, Doron Sapir.

Yet the space is crucial to southeast Tel Aviv and the surrounding area as “an environmental social project,” Sapir explained, because it will drastically improve the quality of life in the area, which is known to be among the poorest sections of Tel Aviv.

“We find a lot of low socioeconomic people who live on the boundaries of this area,” Sternberg agreed. “[Hiriya] has an effect on the microclimate of the whole area,” he added, explaining that this project is representative of Israel’s larger goal to preserve open space for future generations.

When government officials decided to close the dump, the problem of aircraft collisions that could have occurred from the tens of thousands of seagulls migrating from Europe to Africa was largely resolved, according to Sternberg.

“They used to stop here and feed on the kosher food in Hiriya,” joked Sternberg about the birds.
But as the renovation project moves on, Hiriya is a work in progress, and it continues to experience many problems besides the swarms of migrating birds. A quarter of Israel’s waste was received here at one point, Sternberg said. Continuing problems include emissions of bio-gas, sewage leakage and dangerously steep slopes.

In 2001, park workers first began cleaning the soil and managing drainage, and engineers have already installed wells to disperse the bio-gas into usable, clean energy. The next step, Sternberg explained, is to collect leachate — liquid that drains from a landfill — which has been stuck under natural clay and therefore unable to percolate out of the mountain. In three months, the engineers will work with the drainage authority to reroute the Ayalon Stream in Ariel Sharon Park below and construct wetlands for water purification.

After managing sewage, the next move, Sternberg continued, is to construct sturdy, recycled support structures for the sides of Hiriya, which became increasingly steep as the garbage piled upwards. When the mountain is strong enough for sports activity, the architects have planned to designate 10 miles for biking and hiking paths. In all, the government is investing $56 million on Hiriya alone, and approximately $250 million for the entire park, Sternberg said.

Yet some scientists involved with the plans are skeptical about whether all of the development will actually come together as planned, in a timely fashion.

“Frankly, the government has some other priorities,” said Emily Silverman, professor of architecture and urban planning at the Technion and former board member of Green Peace, whose research specializes in development at Hiriya.

But Sternberg ensures that the project is proceeding as planned, adding that the government has already invested so much money in the plans and has created a special committee whose sole purpose is to deal with development in Hiriya.

Silverman also said there are contentions surrounding pronposals to build new high-end housing. But the plan angers certain green groups fearful that development would overrun park space. While some politicians and scientists cite the need for housing development, Sapir said that such construction is impossible without the approval of Israel’s supreme court, which he believes will not happen anytime soon.
Already, Hiriya’s recycling facility is reducing pollution at the park itself, as well as in all of Israel, environmentalists say. The facility, operated by a small Israeli company called ArrowEcology, uses a new technology called ArrowBio to separate recyclable materials entirely in water, according to the company’s general manager, Yair Zadik. From the waste that enters the system, 80 percent ends up being reused, while only 20 percent ends up in the landfill, Zadik said.

Inside the recycling plant, conveyor belts churn waste through pools of murky water, in a separation mechanism that divides plastics, metals and biodegradable materials. The metals settle at the bottom of the trough, the biodegradable materials remain in the middle and the plastics — due to their lighter weight — float to the top. Cylindrical claws crunch plastic bottles together into cubical units, Zadik explained to a group of scientists from the International Solid Waste Association, who were touring the facility. Useful byproducts from the recycling process include ferrous materials, soil compost improvers, bio-gas energy, film plastic and glass, he added.

“I’m not saying we’re doing everything perfectly,” Zadik said. “But I really believe that we have found the right way to treat waste, and the right way to treat waste in water.”

After touring the recycling center, the group climbed into a minivan with Sapir, who drove on the winding roads that spiral up the mountain of garbage, stopping every so often until reaching the top of the hill. From the mountain’s peak, visitors can see a panoramic view of Tel Aviv, as well as the Ariel Sharon Park below, a fertile green and orange expanse, with the Ayalon Stream flowing across the landscape. Throughout the mountain, Sapir explained, there are 70 wells of bio-gas — each about 30 meters deep — that provide clean energy to a nearby textile company.

The group’s final stop was at the bottom of the mountain, where Hiriya’s educational center plays host to school groups from across the country; it’s so popular that there is an eight-month waiting list to visit. Directors hope to receive an increasing number of private donations, so that they can continue to develop their children’s programming with new resources and activities, Sapir said.

Nearly everything in the center is made from recycled material, he explained, pointing to three old doors turned into posters, which feature historical details about Hiriya in English, Hebrew and Arabic. Admission for children is four empty plastic bottles, and they can sit on couches made of tires strung together and desk chairs made of plastic garbage bins. Hanging from the ceiling are not only functional soda bottle lamps, but also a decorative chandelier made of toilet seats, gas masks, Rollerblades and more.

Chuckling, Sapir said, “I think it’s the only educational center in the world located next to a garbage dump.”