The mountain near Ben Gurion Airport looks like the base of an Egyptian pyramid. But it’s neither ancient nor made of stone. It’s Hiria landfill, more than 560 million cubic feet of garbage on 2000 acres, collected from the Tel Aviv/Yaffo metro area since 1952. This mountain illustrates the massive environmental challenges facing the 7.2 million people who live on this “island” called Israel.
We all live on islands: Earth is an island of life in space, continents are islands on Earth, and downscale from there are countries, cities and the properties we call “home.” Islanders pushing against resource limits must act to survive or become extinct. Israelis, pressured to live within Mother Nature’s means, are showing ingenuity that can instruct all of us facing similar challenges.
Before 1993, Hiria was the largest of 77 unregulated dumps open from Haifa to Eilat. Then Israel’s Ministry of Environmental Protection began to close them and started a program of source reduction, education, and regional landfill openings that helped cut Israel’s solid waste output in half by 2007. Because most of Israel’s waste is made up of organics (43 percent), paper/cardboard (22 percent), and plastic (14 percent), MEP is increasing dump fees and offering grants to “incentivize” recycling and composting.
Today, MEP and environmental groups have turned Hiria into Ariel Sharon National Park, an environmental education and experimental center, with miles of bicycle and hiking trails, a transfer station to the new Beersheva landfill, and a methane capture system that supplies fuel to a nearby textile factory. EcoTraders and others are brokering international carbon offset deals on Hiria, and on new forests the Jewish National Fund is planting. The Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, Israel’s largest eco-group, lobbies for sustainable development and to secure 30 percent of Israel’s Mediterranean coastline as nature reserve. Other groups litigate pollution and civil rights cases, educate, save animals and push for food, energy and water security. These are urgent matters.
This year, Israel is projected to consume 52.8 billion gallons more water than it can supply. Its National Infrastructure Ministry has imposed restrictions and raised fees on water use throughout the country, in addition to having distributed low-flow faucet and shower equipment to 1.2 million households. The country recycles about 60 percent of its sewage water, widely uses drip irrigation, computerized water metering, water retention polymers, and organic agricultural methods such as no-till planting and integrated pest management. JNF is funding reservoir construction, and “new water” is being collected from rain and “mined” from the sea — desalination plants provide 15 percent of the country’s potable water.
But even a “water footprint” half the size of that of the U.S. (367,463 gallons/year vs. 655,939), and just 10 percent more than the global average (328,365 gallons/year — see the Footprint Network at www.footprintnetwork.org), is too big for an industrialized society in an arid region. The bigger question: What is the optimum “ecological footprint,” or per capita area of Earth’s resources, needed to support Israel? At 5.0 hectares/person, Israel’s footprint comes in below the high-income countries’ average (6.5), but far above that of low-income countries’ (1.0).
Environmental think tanks such as the Rocky Mountain and Wuppertal Institutes assert that industrialized societies can improve their efficiencies by four to 10 times. If so, Israel could reduce its eco-footprint dramatically, and still maintain its current standard of living.
Supplying cheap, abundant energy is the big challenge. More than 90 percent of Israel is currently powered by imported coal and oil, less than 3 percent with alternative energy, and the remainder by natural gas. But huge changes are afoot.
Solar water heating panels have been required on buildings since 1983 and save the country 2 million barrels of oil a year. Last year, Knesset passed a green building initiative and a Feed-in Tariff, which obligates electricity utilities to buy “green” electricity at above-market rates. These will help cut resource consumption and stimulate development of promising new ventures such as:
1. The algae-biofuels farm offshore of Ashkelon.
2. The Sollel turbine, soon to debut in California as the world’s largest solar plant.
3. The ZenithSolar Z20 solar cogeneration concentrator, which produces thermal and electrical energy, and makes solar power cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
Israel will need the electric power, as it plans to install the world’s first electric car network by 2011. To get its 2.1 million petroleum-fueled cars off its 10,000 miles of roads, cut air pollution and its dependence on foreign oil now, it’s also continuing to expand its taxi, bus, urban transit and commuter rail systems.
Israel runs with this breathtaking ambition and pace to survive, not change the world. But if we “big islanders” in North America acted with the same intensity to cut our eco-footprints, with 335 million people, and 47 times more global impact, we could change the course of global climate change. And in the bargain, guarantee our nations’ survival, too.