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It was not just political strength but also competency that proved an im-pediment to Ministerial effectiveness. Sarid was a brilliant tactician, but his Ministry often acted without a cogent strategy. There was no effort to quantify environmental risks and to use an analytically rigorous process for setting priorities.[131] Economic instruments were not among the tools in the policy toolbox. “Source reduction,” “clean production,” and “pollu-tion prevention”—the mantras of environmental Ministries around the world at the time—did not really penetrate the thinking at Israel's Environmental Ministry. Frequently the Ministry appeared impetuous, trying to solve all problems at once, with haphazard follow-through.

Indeed, the very breadth of Sarid's agenda tended to diffuse the Ministry's effort. Sarid pulled the Ministry in unanticipated directions. For example, because no one else in government appeared interested in the area (and Sarid was), he adopted the issue of animal rights. A new law was passed that gave the Minister of the Environment power to intervene when animals were being abused.[132] Sarid took the issue seriously; he pro-hibited circus performances with animals and banned filming wildlife out-side of its normal habitat.[133]

It was an admirable initiative, but at the same time the Ministry was making little progress in other, more traditional environmental issues, such as the handling of hazardous materials, the establishment of a new toxic-waste facility to supplement Ramat Hovav, and the guaranteeing of an efficient, integrated emergency response to accidents involving haz-ardous substances.[134] The Hazardous Materials Law that passed in the Knesset fell far short of a modern omnibus cradle-to-grave regulatory scheme. The Ministry staff continued to do the best it could with what was essentially a repackaged ordinance from the British Mandate.[135]


In other areas, it was not lack of attention, but narrow vision that lim-ited progress. Solid-waste policy at the Ministry of the Environment was such a case. The amount of trash generated grew at a steady rate of 5 per-cent per year.[136] Ministry propaganda spoke of a hierarchy of solid-waste management that started with source reduction, recycling, reuse, inciner-ation, and burial as a last resort. While the Ministry helped pass a recy-cling law,[137] in practice, the record shows that the Ministry of the Environment's efforts went into trash burial and not into reducing the quantities of garbage or to treating it as a resource.

Prior to Sarid's tenure, the Ministry of the Environment's Solid Waste Department decided that its priority should be the immediate closing of the four hundred garbage dumps across the country. Staffers argued that the damage from these sites to groundwater alone dwarfed all other associated environmental hazards. Concentrating all of the na-tion's garbage into five environmentally responsible sites would allow for more effective regulation. Sarid agreed and got the Cabinet to adopt the position officially.[138]

When environmentalists brought up recycling, composting, and other treatment alternatives, they were dismissed as premature or even senti-mental. The Ministry favored a more pragmatic incrementalism. According to the prevailing paradigm, Israel's garbage system was at step one, with illegal dumps scattered across the country. A state-of-the-art, in-tegrated waste management strategy was step three. Before Israel could get there, the country had to move to step two—closing the dumps and burying trash in national centers. Only then did it make sense to pursue other waste management options.[139]

This keen sense of its own limitations also seemed to drive the Ministry's policy in other areas, such as hazardous waste disposal. At the Ministry's inception, Prime Minister Shamir endowed it with authorities to oversee the government corporation that ran the Ramat Hovav disposal site. But the Ministry had never been able to upgrade the facility to reach a reasonable level of safety, much less implement environmentally sound practices.

A certain defeatism was in the air when scientists from Adam Teva V'din and local settlements negotiated with the Ministry over conditions at the country's first hazardous-waste incinerator at Ramat Hovav. The American trial-burn techniques demanded by environmentalists would be expensive. The Ministry wanted to keep the costs of disposal low. The en-vironmental activists countered that high prices should actually be seen as

a positive policy outcome, encouraging factories to modify production methods, recycle, and reduce the use of hazardous chemicals. The Ministry's response was that if it could, it would allow free delivery of hazardous chemicals at Ramat Hovav. Well aware that over half of Israel's toxic wastes were not getting to the Ramat Hovav facility anyway, the Ministry felt helpless to root out this environmental lawlessness and pre-ferred to concentrate as much hazardous waste as possible in a single dis-posal safe.

But this pessimism meant that the Ministry spent its limited resources on the symptoms rather than the causes of Israel's garbage crisis. For ex-ample, the Ministry made battery collection one of the Year of the Environment's key community gimmicks. Stores across the country kept boxes in which conscientious citizens could drop off their used batteries. They were then taken for burial at the Ramat Hovav hazardous-waste site. But a “pollution prevention” orientation might have pointed to the sim-pler route of banning mercury in batteries and providing tax incentives for using rechargeables. Europe had been doing it for years. Similarly, well-publicized beach cleanups seemed to accomplish little, as the litterers were not among the diligent volunteers. Within a few weeks, the debris would be back.

Thus, conceptually, the Environmental Ministry became locked in the vicious throwaway cycle that was the heart of the problem. It seemed to scoff at the laws of thermodynamics and at the ecoslogans such as “every-thing must go somewhere” that it had always told the public. The fact that Israel buried an astonishing 94 percent of its trash (as opposed to countries such as Switzerland, for which the rate was 17 percent)[140] was somehow considered immutable or an issue to be put off until the future (see Figure 27). Rather than framing recycling and reuse as a moral and civic duty and a tool to teach about scarce resource preservation, the Ministry caved in to narrow economic analysis.

This was a reversion to the “cowboy” or frontier economics of Israel's Ministry of Finance, rather than the spaceship-earth approach to econom-ics that environmentalists around the world worked so hard to promote.[141] With efficiency as the criterion, recycling was not an end in itself but only a tool for increasing landfill longevity. “Our job is to extend the life of garbage dumps as much as possible,” wrote Yossi Inbar, head of the Ministry's Solid Waste Branch.[142]

By the fall of 1994, Sarid himself went on the record, calling to stop re-cycling's momentum:


Under present conditions, the great mass of garbage won't be recycled. It is certainly a retreat from what we thought in the past. Now that we have clearer concepts about the economic side of waste treatment, it's clear that things have changed. Should we go into mourning because it became clear that trash burial is cheaper? No, the Ministry of Finance should rejoice at this, and all of Israel should rejoice.[143]

The Ministry's position was especially peculiar, because it came at a time when world markets for recycled products had reached an all-time high. The price of plastics, for example, had doubled. Recycling initiatives around the world that for years had operated in the red suddenly became profitable. Indeed, in the absence of local collection, the Ramat Hovav-based Aviv factory imported 960 tons of discarded plastic from Germany for production.[144] The Ministry's 180-degree turnabout was among the several political (rather than environmental) decisions that prompted the resignation of Chief Scientist Yoram Avnimelech.[145]

Sarid's great disengagement on the garbage front disappointed envi-ronmentalists, who felt that it undermined years of public education. But it absolutely outraged the residents of Beer Sheva, who were unwilling to pay the price for the Environmental Ministry's optimal scheme for burying the nation's garbage. Beer Sheva had been chosen as the final destination for Tel Aviv's garbage, after an alternative site near the newly declared Beit Jubrin Caves National Park fell through. The vocif-erous protestations of the nearby city of Kiriyat Gat and of the Society for the Protection of Nature had persuaded the Ministry staff to go fur-ther south.

Sarid backed their proposal to convert Beer Sheva's existing municipal Dudaim sanitary landfill into a much larger national site for the garbage of the Tel Aviv region.[146] The Ministry argued that the Dudaim site was not in a sensitive hydrological location and that it was a safe seven kilo-meters from the heart of the city. Moreover the landfill was already up and running, offering an immediate solution to the Hiriyah mountain, whose bird population increasingly posed a hazard to incoming planes.[147]

A broad coalition of Beer Sheva interest groups joined together to protest what they perceived as a classic environmental injustice. Unimpressed by long-term promises to turn the Dudaim site into a park, they argued that the odors and stigma from the facility would stymie fu-ture growth in precisely the area where the city needed to expand. Moreover, Beer Sheva residents resented the fact that the politically pow-erful Tel Aviv region was exporting its trash and turning the Negev into the national waste bin. Miriam Turkel, the independent City Councillor

who led the fight, argued that Israel's trash problem ultimately was not a scientific issue. “It's a social conflict between the poorer and the richer; be-tween Israel's bottom and its top.”[148] When Sarid came to visit Beer Sheva, he was met by angry demonstrators who pelted him with tomatoes.

Sarid pushed ahead. The National Planning Council gave its approval, and a tender for managing the site was issued. Enormous efforts were spent in trying to sell the Ministry's position. Initially, the policy sput-tered. Legal challenges were filed against the Ministry. With elections in the air, no party wanted to alienate a large voting bloc, and the Knesset supported the local Beer Sheva position. Then Tel Aviv refused to pay the transportation costs to Beer Sheva and expressed its solidarity with its southern brethren.[149] Finally, the losers in the tender sued for an injunc-tion, claiming that their proposal was better and thirty million shekels cheaper.[150] Despite Sarid's pledge, it was not clear when Hiriyah would fi-nally shut down.

Even when progress was made in the solid-waste area, the Ministry did not always move to consolidate it and prevent backsliding. The case of bev-erage cans is illuminating. Aluminum made from recycled materials is far cheaper and less energy-intensive than that produced from virgin ore.[151] That is why many recycling programs begin with aluminum cans. Environmentalists called for regulations to require aluminum can produc-tion, but Sarid countered that the same results could be reached through moral suasion. And initially he delivered. The Caniel Corporation, pro-ducer of over two hundred million cans a year, agreed to change its pro-duction process (the alloy of aluminum, tin, and zinc that it had been using was not recyclable).

Because of the lower production costs of recycled aluminum, it was as-sumed that the used cans would generate their own market. With great fan-fare and at an expense of three million dollars, the factory made the transition.[152] It was a small but highly visible improvement. Unfortunately, the invisible hand of the market remained hidden. Without the logistics of a deposit and collection system or a bottle bill in place, Caniel's aluminum cans ended up in the trash. Within a year, with the price of aluminum skyrocketing and practically no recycling taking place, the company quietly returned to its old, unrecyclable production materials.[153]

When Sarid left office, he could justifiably boast that dozens of pollut-ing garbage dumps had been shut under his tenure. But no sustainable pol-icy alternative was in place. Three thousand tons of trash still rolled up the eighty-four-meter-high Hiriyah garbage mountain every day. The garbage finally toppled over into the Ayalon River during a rainstorm in 1997.[154]

Medical waste remained completely unregulated.[155] And “recycling” seemed like a word from a foreign language.

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