Disposable plastics trigger culture war, testing government cohesion

AP — On Idit Silman’s first day as environmental protection minister, she handed out soft drinks in disposable plastic cups to hospital patients.

The gesture held deep symbolic meaning in Israel, where soft drinks and single-use cups, plates, and cutlery have become weapons in a culture war between the country’s secular Jewish majority and the smaller but politically powerful religious minority.

For much of the public, a tax imposed last year on plastic goods seemed like a straightforward way to cut down on the use of items that are major sources of pollution. But many ultra-Orthodox Jews saw the extra cost as an assault on a way of life that relies on the convenience of disposable goods to ease the challenges of managing their large families.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the most right-wing in Israel’s history, relies heavily on ultra-Orthodox parties and has moved quickly to remove the tax on plastics. On Sunday, his cabinet voted to repeal the tax, sending the matter to the full parliament for what is expected to be final approval.

“We promised and we delivered,” said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party. “The fight against the cost of living is a fight we all are waging.”

In 2021, when Netanyahu and his religious allies were in the opposition, then-prime minister Naftali Bennett’s government authorized a tax on highly sugary drinks as a health measure to curb rising obesity rates and diabetes, and the tax on single-use plastics as a means of fighting a plague of plastic pollution. The tax amounted to NIS 11 per kilogram ($1.5 per pound) on single-use plastic goods, effectively doubling the market price.

Repealing those taxes were key demands of Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, who made them a rallying cry ahead of November’s parliamentary election. Another coalition deal between Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox allies would effectively eliminate a refundable deposit on plastic bottles imposed a year ago.

A GreenNet recycling plant employee cleans the ground next to piles of disposable plastic ready for export, in Atarot industrial zone, north of Jerusalem, January 25, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)

The United Nations Environment Program has called plastic waste “one of the biggest environmental scourges of our time,” and says the equivalent of a garbage truck-full is dumped into the ocean each minute. Plastics can take centuries to degrade, cause extensive damage to ecosystems and can contain compounds toxic to organisms.

Israel is a major consumer of single-use plastics. The Environmental Protection Ministry said in a 2021 report that Israeli consumption of single-use plastics had more than doubled between 2009 and 2019. It said the per capita average hit 7.5 kilograms (16 pounds) per year — five times the average in Europe.

Single-use plastics made up an estimated 90 percent of trash on Israel’s coastline, and 19% of the garbage on public lands, constituting a major environmental threat, it said.

Nonetheless, Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies, or Haredim, are celebrating the plastic tax’s expected repeal. Disposable plasticware has become a key element 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 plasticware for weekday meals and large Sabbath gatherings alike as a labor-saving solution to washing the dishes. Single-use plasticware is de rigueur in Jewish seminaries where ultra-Orthodox men study and eat their meals.

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

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, left, and Social Affairs Minister Yaacov Margi arrive for a cabinet meet at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 22, 2023. (Fitoussi/FLASH90)

For ultra-Orthodox politicians, these taxes were emblematic of what they considered the previous government’s attack on their lifestyle. Haredi media outlets frequently referred to them as “decrees” issued by the secular finance minister at the time, Avigdor Liberman, that were aimed at targeting the religious minority.

“Liberman has been depicted as the one who stuck it to the ultra-Orthodox on every issue,” Cohen said. “Automatically this thing was painted as something that targets the Haredim.”

Environmental groups say that over the course of 2022 — the year the tax was in effect — single-use plastic consumption dropped by a third.

A survey of Israeli beaches by a pair of environmental groups, Zalul and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, found a significant drop in the quantity of single-use plasticware and plastic bottles on Israeli beaches. They cited the taxes on plastic and sweetened drinks.

On top of the environmental impact, the tax generated nearly $100 million in revenue, according to the country’s tax authority.

Meirav Abadi, an attorney with the union, said that repealing the tax would be “like a green light to go back to using these utensils in an even more intensive manner.”

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

“It’s so frustrating because we were so late in trying to make steps towards other countries” on multiple environmental issues. She fears Israel may “go backwards” on other issues as well.

A Tel Aviv’s municipality worker cleans the beach from plastic waste, in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2023. (Oded Balilty/AP)

Smotrich, the finance minister, has also extended a tax break on coal until the end of 2023 in a bid to keep electricity bills down — a move environmentalists say will increase consumption 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 yet change her stance.

Silman voted against the cabinet decision to repeal the plastic tax, saying that after studying the issue in recent weeks, she has come to understand the “enormous” environmental cost of disposable plastics. She said the government should find an alternative way to reduce plastic consumption before doing away with the tax.

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

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