Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Jerusalem Garbage Workers Strike Forces Us to Reckon With Our Garbage

Why is there so much garbage in the streets of Jerusalem? The sanitation worker’s strike in Jerusalem this week follows similar strikes in 2012 and 2016, and raised this and important questions for me. Why do those living in and visiting Jerusalem produce so much garbage? When garbage collection ceases due to a strike or a snow storm, why do some streets in Jerusalem get blocked and shut down due to heaps of garbage?

At the Machane Yehuda Food (Garbage) Market
At the Machane Yehuda Food (Garbage) Market. Benji Elson for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Garbage is something external to us. We don’t want to deal with our waste, so we send it away for other people, plants, and animals to deal and live with. However, perhaps that is only because the system that we live in and accept designs products to be thrown away. A different way of consuming is possible. Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA, also known as life-cycle analysis, ecobalance, and cradle-to-grave analysis) is a technique used to assess environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life from raw material extraction and processing to production, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and disposal (or recycling)” (see this Wikipedia article about it). If our products were designed with the goal of reaching a high LCA scoreway, we would have a whole lot less waste.

What happens when I, in Jerusalem, throw away my trash? The garbage truck takes it to a processing facility in the Givat Shaul neighborhood where it waits, with the engine running for up to an hour, in order to empty its load. Next,a huge tractor scoops up the garbage and puts it on larger trucks which take it to garbage dumps in the Negev or in the West Bank. By striking, the sanitation workers are reminding us that they have  lives and deserve decent wages too. In doing so they remind us that garbage has a life as well; and doesn’t end when we throw it away.

Agripas St. in Jerusalem during day two of sanitation workers' strike. Photo credit: Benji Elson for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development
Agripas St. in Jerusalem during day two of sanitation workers’ strike. Photo credit: Benji Elson for the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

The Prophet Isaiah wrote (48:18), “For so said the Lord, the Creator of heaven, Who is God, Who formed the earth and made it, He established it; He did not create it for a waste, He formed it to be inhabited, ‘I am the Lord and there is no other.’ “

God did not create the earth in order for us to make it a wasteland, desolate, or a garbage dump. No, God created the earth in order for it to teem with life, and for there to be healthy settlement of people and thriving ecosystems of plants, animals, and sea life. The Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) has informative discussions regarding waste management including conversations about whether or not one can put compost in a public place or even in one’s own fields, as well as not scattering broken glass on public land.

Does your house of worship serve as a positive example of mindful resource use, especially in regards to disposable products? Have you ever heard your clergy member speak out about how we produce so much garbage? Is the holy city of Jerusalem living up to its potential for cleanliness based on the enlightened consumption of its residents?

Garbage is not a new phenomenon, but the volume of trash that we produce each day is. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov told a story of one person creating a mountain of garbage. While when he wrote this, 200 years ago, it may have been an absurdity, in our times it is very plausible to see that a person in consumer society can, in their lifetime, create a mountain of trash. The Onion parodies such a lifestyle in its poignant article, “Man’s Garbage To Have Much More Significant Effect On Planet Than He Will.”  Many of the items we consume and then throw away (like plastic, Styrofoam, batteries, cell phones, and computers) will remain in the ecosystem for thousands or tens of thousands of years, while the pleasure we received from certain goods will have been ephemeral.

A different way is possible. Colin Bevin in his book No Impact Man describes how a man went for an entire year and produced no waste in Manhattan. While that is unrealistic for most, there are practical steps we can take to produce less waste.

So, how can we keep the holy city of Jerusalem clean?

  1. We need to tell the city what we want. Since the city does not provide convenient access to composting, cardboard recycling, paper recycling, or glass or aluminum bottle recycling for many of its residents, the residents should demand this from the Municipality,
  2. Reduce your overall personal waste stream. Consider how much garbage you produce each week, and try to reduce it. Take it upon yourself to make an extra effort to compost your organic waste or recycle plastic, cardboard, paper, and glass.
  3. To reduce the amount of packaging you consume, buy in bulk and bring your own resuable bag when you shop.
  4. Learn how to properly reuse or dispose of waste in Jerusalem on the ‘Sustainable Living’ tab of Green Map Jerusalem.
About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He is the lead author and general editor of two publications on Jewish environmental ethics, speaks on faith and ecology, and was a Dorot and PresenTense Fellow. He lives with his wife, Shana, and two children in Jerusalem.
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