In Israel, single-use plastics are sparking a culture war, test PM

0 17

JERUSALEM (AP) – On Idit Silman’s first day as Israel’s new environment minister, she handed out soft drinks in disposable plastic cups to hospital patients.

The gesture had deep symbolic meaning in Israel, where soft drinks and disposable cups, plates and cutlery have become weapons in a cultural conflict between the country’s secular Jewish majority and the smaller but politically powerful religious minority. health.

For most of the public, a tax imposed on plastic items last year seemed like an easy way to limit the use of items that are major sources of pollution. But many ultra-Orthodox Jews saw the added expense as an attack on a lifestyle that relies on the convenience of disposable items to ease the challenges of managing their large families.

The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, based on the ultra-Orthodox parties, acted quickly to remove the plastic tax. On Sunday, his cabinet voted to repeal the tax and referred the matter to the full Parliament for what is likely to be final approval.

“We promised and we delivered,” said Treasury Secretary Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism Party. “The fight against the cost of living is a fight we are all fighting.”

In 2021, with Netanyahu and his religious allies in opposition, then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government approved a tax on sugary drinks as a health measure to curb rates rising rates of obesity and diabetes, and a tax on single-use plastics. way to fight a plague of the planet plastic pollution. The tax amounts to 11 shekels per kilogram ($1.5 per pound) on single-use plastic items, effectively doubling the market price.

The removal of these taxes has been a key demand from Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, who have raised them to a rallying cry ahead of November’s general election. Another coalition agreement between Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies effectively removes a refundable deposit on plastic bottles imposed a year ago.

The United Nations Environmental Program has called plastic waste “one of the greatest environmental scourges of our time” and says that the equivalent of a full garbage truck is dumped into the ocean every minute. Plastic can take centuries to break down, seriously harm ecosystems and contain compounds that are toxic to organisms.

Israel is a big consumer of single-use plastic. The Ministry of Environmental Protection said in a 2021 report that Israel’s consumption of single-use plastic more than doubled between 2009 and 2019. The per capita average reached 7.5 kilograms (16 pounds) per year – five times the European average.

Single-use plastics accounted for approximately 90% of the garbage on Israel’s coasts and 19% of the waste on public lands, which present a major environmental threat, he said.

However, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, or Haredim, are celebrating the expected end of the plastic tax. Single-use plastic items have become a staple of the Haredi lifestyle in Israel in recent decades, said Yisrael Cohen, an ultra-Orthodox political analyst.

Families with an average of six children per household use disposable plastic plates for both weekday meals and large Sabbath gatherings as a labor-saving solution to dishwashing. Single-use plastic items are essential in Jewish seminaries where ultra-Orthodox men study and eat.

“It’s a whole industry, an institution,” he said. “Single-use plastic is a great solution for the Haredi community.”

For ultra-Orthodox politicians, these taxes were symbolic of what they saw as an attack on their way of life by the previous government. Haredi media often referred to them as “decrees” by then-secular Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman targeting the religious minority.

“Lieberman has been portrayed as the one who stuck with the ultra-Orthodox on every issue,” Cohen said. “This thing was automatically painted as something aimed at the Haredim.”

Environmental groups say that during 2022 – the year the tax came into effect – the consumption of single-use plastic has decreased by a third.

A survey of Israeli beaches by two environmental groups, Zalul and the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense, found a significant reduction in the amount of single-use plastic items and plastic bottles on Israeli beaches. They mentioned taxes on plastic and sugary drinks.

In addition to the environmental impact, the tax generated nearly $100 million in revenue, according to the state tax agency.

Meirav Abadi, a lawyer for the union, said the removal of the tax would be “like a green light to start using this device more extensively.”

Limor Gorelik, head of Zalul’s plastic pollution prevention department, called the photo opportunity of the minister with the plastic cups “really embarrassing”.

“It is so frustrating because so late we have been trying to take steps towards other countries” on various environmental issues. She fears that Israel may “go backwards” on other issues as well.

Smotrich, the finance minister, has also extended a tax cut for coal until the end of 2023 to keep electricity bills down – a move that environmentalists say will increase use of the polluting fuel. .

Silman, who was a member of Bennett’s party before defecting to Netanyahu’s Likud party last year, signaled on Sunday that she may change her position.

Silman voted against the cabinet’s decision to remove the plastic tax and said that after studying the issue in recent weeks, she understood the “enormous” environmental costs of single-use plastic. She said that the government should find an alternative way to reduce plastic consumption before removing the tax.

But she said that the original tax was a mistake and should not have been done in a way that “triggered antagonism towards a particular population”.

Ilan Ben Zion, The Associated Press


Leave A Reply