The 22 years that have elapsed since the momentous Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment were characterized by a dramatic increase in environmental awareness worldwide. Today, environmental protection is recognized both as a prerequisite to sustainable development and as its end result. The international environmental awakening has and will continue to have an impact on Israel. From nearly zero awareness of environmental issues in Israel’s early years, public awareness and understanding have dramatically increased. But if Israel’s environmental movement is to succeed, much more needs to be done. Therefore, major efforts are now being invested in further increasing environmental awareness and instilling an environmental code of ethic in every man, woman and child in Israel.
The Year of the Environment
Recognition of the central role that public awareness holds in the formation of national priorities and the formulation of environmental policy has not eluded Israel’s decision makers. This recognition was embodied in the resolution to declare the Jewish year 5754 (September 1993 to August 1994) as the Year of the Environment in Israel.
The government decision, taken on September 1, 1992, called upon the Ministry of the Environment, in cooperation with the Information Center and other government ministries, to prepare a program marking the Year of the Environment in Israel. Since the subject is interdisciplinary and affects most government offices, nearly all ministries have taken an active part in this year’s program of environmental events and activities.
The goals of the year, as formulated in the resolution, are:
* To increase public awareness of the environment, primarily among youth, and to involve the wider public in environmental activities; * To focus the efforts of the various government ministries on the subject, and to promote awareness among all sectors of the community to the issue; * To strengthen Israel’s national information campaign abroad; * To promote specific environmental issues, such as: cleanliness in public places, green consumerism, eco-labeling, recycling, improved appearance of municipalities, and much more.
Environment Year Activities
Environment Year was officially launched on September 6th, 1993 with two ceremonies: the first, at the top of the Hiriya garbage dump in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, and the second, at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. The official inauguration of the year at the President’s Residence was attended by such dignitaries as President Weizman, Prime Minister Rabin and Minister of the Environment Sarid as well as a wide array of government and public representatives. Together they signed an environmental covenant outlining Israel’s commitment to environmental protection (see below).
Over the past year, some 650 activities have taken place, their impact exceeding initial expectations. No day has gone by without media coverage of environmental issues, without environmental lectures, audio-visual presentations, events, exhibitions or cleanups. Every means has been utilized to increase public consciousness: televised public service announcements, television programs, radio shows, audio-visual presentations, jingles, media coverage, posters, stickers, information campaigns, publications and a "green diary," on recycled paper, to remind the public, on a day-by-day basis of environmental issues. Requests for environmental information have poured into the Ministry of the Environment in the thousands. Specially-prepared pamphlets, car stickers, posters, rulers, bookmarks and garbage bags for vehicles have been distributed to the general public some printed in English and Arabic as well as in Hebrew, all stamped with the year’s motto: "To the Environment with Love."
While the Ministry of the Environment has stood at the forefront of activities, the interdisciplinary nature of the subject has encompassed nearly all government ministries in projects and undertakings targeted at attaining two central aims: bringing about concrete improvements in environmental quality in Israel and dramatically increasing environmental education, awareness and public involvement. Worthy of special note is the Ministry of Education which has adopted the subject as the central theme of the formal education system this year. In addition to publishing new study programs and educational materials, the Ministry of Education sponsored a unique educational fair in December 1993, displaying a wealth of pedagogical materials on the environment, and distributed a special publication, providing a comprehensive listing of all available environmental education material from textbooks to games to computer programs.
Throughout the country, local authorities, environmental organizations, citizen groups, schools and youth movements have brought the environmental issue to the fore through the organization of competitions, games, exhibitions, quizzes, cleanups, marches, tours and study days. Various sectors of the population were introduced to the subject by means of environmental awareness weeks. These were launched by the Arab educational sector, by universities, volunteer organizations, local authorities and the Histadrut Labor Federation as well as by numerous government ministries. In June of 1994, the Ministry of the Environment sponsored Environment Week in Israel, to synchronize with the celebration of Environment Day around the world. Celebrations included an official ceremony in the Knesset in which awards were granted to industries, local authorities and cleanliness trustees who have excelled in their environmental activities and two cleanup campaigns: one along the Mediterranean shoreline, the other, with the cooperation of local diving clubs, underwater in the Gulf of Eilat.
During the course of the entire year, the general media played an important role in placing environmental concerns at the forefront of national concern. Special environmental supplements were included in the country’s major newspapers, and several new periodicals on environmental and nature protection were published by Israel’s green organizations. Environmental film marathons, both local and international, were held at cinematheques throughout the country; public service announcements on cleanliness, battery collection, eco-labelling and recycling were aired on radio and television; and dozens of new television programs on the environment were produced by both the general and educational television networks.
Nearly every holiday was dedicated to the theme of the environment. As part of a special campaign, organized by the Ministry of the Environment in cooperation with local environmental units, dozens of environmental information stations were opened in strategic locations throughout the country during Israel’s three major holidays (Succot, Passover and Shavuot). Tens of thousands of vacationers and hikers stopped at the stations, picking up environmental material, posing environmental questions and signing on as cleanliness trustees. A special musical performance, entitled "Life to the Rivers," replete with singers and artists, marches and hikes, drew thousands to the Galilee area during the Succot holiday. Independence Day celebrations were also dedicated to the environment. Special events included the traditional lighting of twelve torches by environmentalists during the central ceremony, free environmental tours and a spotlight on the environment within the framework of the annual International Bible Quiz held in Jerusalem.
During their free time, Israelis viewed innovative environmental exhibitions displayed in museums throughout Israel. The Youth Wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, for example, featured a long- running exhibition entitled "Landscapes." The presentation focused on the encounter between man and the landscape around him and featured visual displays alongside active participation by the public using computers and audio-visual equipment. Another popular exhibition, entitled "From Material to Material," has been making the rounds of all of Israel’s major museums, featuring unique displays using recycled materials.
Stamp and coin collectors made avail of an official mintset by the Israel Government Coins and Medals Corporation featuring a twelve- sided bronze coin with the words "For a Better Environment" and of a set of three stamps on the environment, issued by the Philatelic Service, and featuring the symbols of air, water and earth.
Businesspeople were given the chance to review environmental opportunities within the framework of international commercial exhibitions on quality of life, ecology, recycling and environmental and landscape protection, sponsored by the Ministry of the Environment in Tel Aviv’s exhibition grounds.
The conclusion of the Year of the Environment will be marked by additional projects including: a special supplement distributed to local newspapers as well as to all high school students in the country; a river cleanup campaign with the participation of some 5,000 youngsters on summer programs to Israel from abroad; an environmental march, organized by the Ministry of the Environment in conjunction with the Israel Defense Forces and with the participation of soldiers, youth movements, green organizations and the general public; and a new exhibition on the environment which will reinforce the fact that environmental awareness is a continuous process, which must not be eroded with the conclusion of the year.
All told, some 160 bodies have taken part in this year’s events, including the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Council for a Beautiful Israel, the National Parks Authority, the Histadrut Consumer and Environmental Protection Authority, the Jewish National Fund, the Museum Forum, women’s organizations (Na’amat, WIZO), B’nai B’rith, Rotary International, the Manufacturers’ Association and many many more. Environmental associations, public bodies, governmental organizations, each has vowed to do its part to improve the environment in Israel. From organizing cleanup campaigns to joining Israel’s corps of cleanliness trustees, each group has played an important role in fostering environmental awareness and commitment.
In order to bring about concrete improvements in the quality of the environment in Israel, several areas have been targeted for priority action. Throughout the Year of the Environment, renewed efforts are being placed on the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations, in cooperation with the police, the inspection patrol (the Ministry of the Environment’s environmental inspection and enforcement unit) and local authorities. Special attention is focused on the restoration of the country’s polluted rivers, with first priority to the Yarkon, Kishon, Alexander, and Lachish Rivers. Local environmental units and town associations for environmental quality currently serving over 80% of Israel’s population are promoting environmental projects in their own localities. The number of these units, which are under the administrative jurisdiction of their respective municipalities, but under the professional aegis of the Ministry of the Environment, has increased from 22 to 27 this year alone with the additional units set up in the Arab sector.
Wherever possible, activities are focusing on a number of key projects, in which the general public can take an active part and make a difference. The most prominent of these include promotion of cleanliness and recycling, battery collection and green consumerism.
Towards Improved Cleanliness
Throughout the year, cleanup campaigns, with the participation of thousands of volunteers, are being launched in municipal areas, along the coasts, on the roadsides and even underwater in the Gulf of Eilat. Special efforts are being invested in increasing Israel’s legion of volunteer anti-litter trustees, a unique Israeli innovation whereby cleanliness inspectors and trustees are appointed by the Minister of the Environment to help enforce the Maintenance of Cleanliness Law. Since the beginning of the Year of the Environment, less than a year ago, the number of cleanliness trustees has doubled to 100,000. The target by the end of 1995 250,000 volunteers.
On a national level, special efforts are concentrated on closing down or rehabilitating illegal dump sites, and new undertakings are focusing on recycling and reuse. Experimental recycling projects have been initiated in 30 local authorities, separation at source of paper in all government offices has begun, and the purchase of recycled products in government and educational institutions is being encouraged. Beginning with the September 1994 school year, all notebooks used in first to fourth grades will be made from recycled paper.
It is estimated that some 50 million used batteries find their way to garbage dumps each year. Efforts are currently being invested in separating batteries from household refuse, preventing their disposal in municipal landfills and promoting their disposal at the national hazardous waste site at Ramat Hovav. To promote the project, a nationwide battery-collection campaign, accompanied by a massive public information campaign, has been launched. By means of special service announcements in the media along with posters, publications and stickers, the public is being encouraged to discard used batteries in about 43,000 specially-designed containers which have been dispersed in strategic locations throughout the country. Local authorities are then responsible for the transport of the batteries for disposal at the national hazardous waste site, instead of haphazardly dumping them at landfills and other sites.
With the advent of eco-labeling in Israel, individuals will have the chance to opt for a cleaner and safer environment through the purchase of environmentally-friendly products. In 1993, criteria for eco-labeling were defined and a symbol designed, setting the way for manufacturers and importers to apply to the joint committee of the Ministry of the Environment and the Israel Standards Institute for permission to append the eco-label to their product.
Israel’s "green label," designed as a white tree with three heart- shaped leaves on a green background, will be awarded on a "cradle to grave" basis, taking into consideration the product’s environmental impact at each stage of its life cycle (pre- production, production, packaging and distribution, use and disposal).
Criteria for the evaluation of a product’s impact on the environment relate to the product’s impact on waste, soil pollution, water pollution, air pollution, noise, energy consumption, natural resources, and other factors.
The new standard will provide uniform, recognized criteria for environmental labeling which will replace the multitude of environmental claims currently being made by manufacturers regarding their products. The provision of accurate and reliable information on the environmental effects of certain products will increase consumer awareness, change consumer behavior, lead manufacturers to develop environmentally-friendly products, and improve the environment. The environmental label is conceived as a market-oriented instrument of environmental policy which will provide a competitive edge to environmentally-friendly products relative to other products in the same category.
The first three standards for environmentally-friendly products were published by the Israel Standards Institute in March 1994. They include: general guidelines for the assessment of products with reduced environmental impact ("green" products), sanitary paper (e.g. toilet paper, paper napkins and towels, tissues, etc.) and writing and printing paper (notebooks, printing paper, envelopes, computer paper, etc). Other standards, in advanced stages of preparation, include: cardboard and other paper products, water-based paints and batteries.
A public information campaign will help persuade manufacturers and importers to work toward environmentally-friendly products and will encourage the general public to purchase products which have been accorded the "green label".
Both environmental awareness and environmental improvement depend on the availability of up-to-date information concerning the environment. The Ministry of the Environment currently operates an information center on hazardous substances, which supplies data on a 24-hour a day basis, both to the multitude of bodies now dealing with hazardous substances and to the general public. Plans are underway to expand its operations to other areas in the future.
The Ministry of the Environment serves as the focal point for INFOTERRA, the United Nations Environment Programme’s information exchange and referral service. The INFOTERRA system is comprised of a network of over 150 participating nations which serve as access points for public queries regarding environmental issues. National focal points draw on the resources of network partners in order to respond to environmental questions. The Ministry of the Environment is currently investing major efforts in updating and increasing its reference sources in Israel for the benefit of other national focal points. Simultaneously, it is working to inform government, academic and other environmental institutions about the availability of the system.
Another recent breakthrough is the development of a computerized database on the environment by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The environmental information system, entitled Holit, was established in 1993. It is available to students, researchers, public institutions and the general public in fact to anyone with access to a personal computer. All users can obtain online access to local and international environmental information bases, can address questions to environmental bodies in Israel and can publish announcements on environmental problems, important events, lectures and conferences, nature observations, etc. The goal of the system is to foster environmental awareness and activity by enabling more people to obtain up-to-date and easily accessible information on the environment.
Towards Increased Awareness
The emergence of environmental databases, the initiation of environmental campaigns, the implementation of environmental projects all have contributed to growing environmental awareness in Israel. While the multitude of initiatives currently being launched are too many to list here, suffice it to say that they have made a major impact.
Since the declaration of the Year of the Environment in September 1993, the number of citizens who have turned to the Ministry of the Environment for help in solving environmental problems has skyrocketed. Citizens, students and educators have bombarded both the district and national levels of the ministry with dozens of requests, suggestions and complaints on a daily basis. While citizens appear to be concerned with nearly every aspect of the environment, the majority of the queries relate to recycling, noise, cleanliness, radiation and air pollution.
Indubitably, Israel’s efforts to increase public environmental awareness have made a difference. The Ministry of the Environment intends to continue its efforts, helping to ensure that the environmental covenant signed at the beginning of the Year of the Environment will be implemented not only this year, but for many years to come.