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Why Israelis Are Killing The Planet

The State of Israel that I and millions of other Zionists proudly call home has a glaring issue that is all but ignored on the political stage. While pro-Israel organizations like Stand With Us and AIPAC will boast about Israel's achievements in sustainability, they neglect to acknowledge the enormous amounts of single-use plastic that Israelis use and promptly dispose of each year.

In fact, a recent study found that Israel ranked second in the world in single-use plates and cutlery per capita. That equates to an average of 7.5 Kg (16 Lbs) worth of plastic each year; to put that in perspective, that's more than five times the yearly average per capita found in Europe.


So it’s clear from the statistics that Israelis are using much more than their fair share of single-use plastics, but why does it really matter? A common response I’ve found regarding this issue is that using single-use plastics is "ok" because they will just get recycled. However, Israel has one of the lowest recycling rates among Western countries, with only 10% of waste making it into a recycling bin. Just from my personal experience while serving in the IDF, I saw no established system for the recycling of single-use plastics that are used frequently in the Army.


This popular opinion is doubly misguided when you consider the heaps of plastic pollution that line Israel’s coastline. A study by a Ph.D. candidate at The University of Haifa showed that Israel had one of the most polluted coastlines in the world, with around 90% of that being plastic. This is compounded by the newly discovered impacts of microplastics and their ability to enter our blood and tissues.


"The Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change (CMCC) found that the quantities of microplastic off Israel’s coast is nine times higher than the average in other Mediterranean countries." (1)


With all of the evidence laid out, it’s abundantly clear that single-use plastics are not only overused and abused by the average Israeli, but that they are also extremely dangerous to the environment and hazardous to our health. Thus arises the question: why, in a country that prides itself on sustainability, do so many people overuse single-use plastics?

The answer boils down to three main components: Culture, Accessibility, and demographics.


The cause of this "Single-use culture" found in Israel is a part of the current Israeli zeitgeist that is glaringly obvious to Israelis but may be hard to spot for the outside observer. Generations of security-based living and near-constant conflict have created an attitude in Israel of "Do now, fix later". A famous example of this is Israel’s inability, after 75 years, to build a functional constitution.


In 1948, with an impending war for independence, the authors of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, using the same "do now, fix later" attitude, included this line in the declaration: "regular authorities of the State in accordance with the Constitution, which shall be adopted by the Elected Constituent Assembly not later than the 1st October 1948". Clearly, they were not able to meet this four-month deadline, essentially dooming the constitutional process for eternity and leading us to our current situation with the judicial reforms.


When it comes to single-use plastics, the same "do now, fix later" perspective prevails among many Israelis. As put by the owner of one of many Israeli shops where their only products are single-use plastics, "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.". This comment, while infuriating, accurately pinpoints the underlying cause of this destructive and wasteful trend.


The only way to overcome this cultural apathy is to recognize its roots and attempt to change that cultural attitude at its source. If the average Israeli were faced with the very real consequences of their daily waste through some sort of information campaign, general behavior would certainly shift.


While this is only part of what would need to be a multi-faceted solution, revealing information regarding the environmental impact of single-use plastics to each consumer before their next trip to the supermarket may have a profound impact on their choices. The lack of this type of education begs the question: Why is it that in a country that prints "Smoking Kills" on every cigarette pack, we are unable to hold single-use plastic producers similarly accountable for the damage they cause to our environment and to our future?

Another important aspect of this single-use epidemic is the unmatched ease and accessibility of single-use plastics. There seems to be an irresistible aspect to it—just finishing a meal and rolling all of the trash up into the garbage can without any dishes to do or tables to clear. With such a clear incentive to waste and no visible downside, it's no wonder why Israelis are choosing this path.


On top of this, the cheap price of these products makes them an economically accessible option for a large swath of the population. At the popular big-box chain "Jumbo Stock," a package of 20 plastic plates goes for just 5.90 NIS (1.62 USD); similarly, you can find a package of 50 plastic knives for 9.90 NIS (2.72 USD). The incredibly small financial impact that these products have on the average family budget gives those who are generally apathetic to environmental issues the extra push that they need to become regular consumers of single-use plastic. On top of the economic aspect, another problem is that in many environments, single-use plastic is often the only option, forcing people who are otherwise environmentally conscious to use single-use plastic. When the choice is between not eating and eating on plastic, most reasonable people just give up and choose to eat on plastic purely out of necessity.


Yet another frustrating part of this story is that we already had part of a functional solution to the problem in our grasp. However, in January of this year, finance minister Bezalel Smotritch championed the repeal of a less than 2-year-old tax on single-use plastic. The previous tax had been widely successful in reducing the use of single-use plastics by roughly 40%. The repealing of this tax represents a clear step backward for Israeli society, a step that comes in contrast to the efforts of most other Western nations that are trying to reduce plastic use rather than increase it.


The final component of the single-use epidemic pertains to the large Haredi demographic, which generally ignores the environmental crises that face Israel and the world.


"A parliamentary report from November 2021 found that ultra-Orthodox families used plasticware three times more often than the rest of the population because they often have large families and low incomes, with many not owning dishwashers." (2)


These reasons, combined with the aforementioned environmental apathy, create the perfect conditions for the large Haredi community to be a powerhouse of single-use plastic consumption.

From my own personal experience, single-use plastics seem to be a staple in nearly every Haredi household and synagogue that I have ever been to. All this is in contrast to multiple places in Tanach and Talmud that emphasize a Jewish responsibility to care for the earth. (Deuteronomy 20:19–201) creates the commandment of Bal Taschit, the concept that even in wartime there is a responsibility to care for the land and that it is forbidden to needlessly destroy the environment in a new land. With such a clear commandment to preserve and care for our world, it is surprising that Haredi politicians so strongly (and successfully) lobbied against the now-repealed single-use plastic tax.


It is important to mention, however, that while Haredi communities produce public political support for kitchenware products in particular, the average Tel Avivian actually produces on average almost twice the amount of overall waste as someone in Bnei Brak, a Haredi suburb of Tel Aviv. This fact highlights the need for widespread change in Israel and further demonstrates that this is a problem that affects every sector of Israeli society and is not exclusively a "Haredi problem".


A special mention must be made for a number of nonplastic single-use kitchenware materials such as bamboo and sugarcane. Both of which are biodegradable and compostable. These alternatives, however, are substantially harder to find and come at a higher price tag.


In the end, a solution to the unique problem of single-use plastics in Israel will most likely require a number of fundamental changes within Israeli society. While education, taxes, and a cultural shift can all help to fix the wasteful habits of the average Israeli, it will take millions of people to make the personal choice to avoid plastics in order to have any substantial change. In a world where so many are enveloped in rampant, nonstop consumerism, the only way to break the mold is to consciously and knowledgeably consume products, understanding the effect they will have after they hit the bottom of your dumpster.



Sources:

(1)“A Country Made of Plastic: Israel’s Addiction to Disposable Tableware.” CTECH - www.calcalistech.com, 6 July 2018, www.calcalistech.com/ctech/articles/0,7340,L-3741791,00.html.

(2)Reuters. “Israel Drops Plastic Tax Despite Environmental Gains.” VOA, 29 Jan. 2023, www.voanews.com/a/israel-drops-plastic-tax-despite-environmental-gains-/6938911.html.

“Test Page - I Heart Israel | StandWithUs.” StandWithUs, www.standwithus.com/copy-of-test-page-answering-tough-q.

Reuters. “Israel Drops Plastic Tax Despite Environmental Gains.” Reuters, 29 Jan. 2023, www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/israel-drops-plastic-tax-despite-environmental-gains-2023-01-29.

“In Israel, Disposable Plastics Trigger Culture War, Test PM.” AP News, 30 Jan. 2023, apnews.com/article/israel-government-benjamin-netanyahu-climate-and-environment-pollution-834c7d33f30d22029682c121ed27baa4.

“Ultra-Orthodox and Environment: Little Awareness, Great Results.” The Jerusalem Post | JPost.com, 23 Jan. 2022, www.jpost.com/environment-and-climate-change/article-694260.

Kane, Hadar. “The World Is Fighting Plastic Use. Why Hasn’t Israel Caught On?” Haaretz.com, www.haaretz.com/israel-news/2019-10-31/ty-article/.premium/the-world-is-fighting-plastic-use-why-hasnt-israel-caught-on/0000017f-f273-d223-a97f-ffff04bb0000.





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