The promised landfill: 106 years of garbage in Tel Aviv
As the Tel Aviv Municipality introduces new recycling bins, we go back to the days when sanitation workers used to collect wastewater from outhouses, when dust covered the city's streets, when the first garbage trucks arrived and when trash piled up on the streets during the Sanitation Department's strikes.
With the absence of proper sewage and garbage removal systems, Dr. Hissin was forced to deal with the sanitary headache with the poor means at his disposal.
"At first there were only outhouses and the committee had to collect the waste water," explained Ofer Regev, a Land of Israel researcher. "In addition, each yard had to have a garbage hoarder and it had to be cleaned every two days. But the rubbish at the time could be recycled for agriculture, as there was no plastic. Most of it was writing paper and wrapping paper."
A lot of waste water and rubbish have been loaded on the city's sewage and garbage removal systems since then, and the latest innovation was recently introduced by the Sanitation Department: In the past month, the Tel Aviv Municipality has deployed across the city orange dustbins for the disposal of plastic containers of food products, plastic bags, polystyrene containers, hygiene products' containers, milk bags, food bags, drink cartons, tins and cans.
So far, the orange dustbins have been placed in the northern and central parts of the city, and more than 70,000 bins will be deployed from the north to the south of the city by the end of the year.
In honor of this innovation, which is finally bringing Tel Aviv closer to the Western world's ecological standards, here's a series of anecdotes from 106 years of sanitation in the unstoppable city. So hold your nose and learn some history.
The water strikers
Before they were defined as "sanitation workers," the people responsible for cleaning up Tel Aviv were called "the street strikers." In the early 20th century, as a young community located near the sea with hardly any paved roads, Tel Aviv often suffered from the dust and the sand. The public domain was cleaned up with water-striking machines. "The cleaners would simply go from one street to another and pour water on them," Regev explains. "It was the way of reducing the level of dust."
The Tel Aviv Municipality officially established its Sanitary Supervision Department only in 1925. Mayor Meir Dizengoff wrote in an internal memo on March 1 that year, "I hereby request that the sand be cleaned from all the streets in the heart of Tel Aviv. This should be done at least once a week."
"The cleaners would wander the streets on carts pulled by cattle," says Regev. "They would collect the garbage and then take it to the Mikveh Israel School, so it could be used as manure to fertilize the fields.
"During that period, the first municipal law took effect, marking the beginning of the penalty era: Whoever failed to meet the demands was fined. But it still wasn't an industry the municipality could make money from. The fines were mainly given to public institutions."
Aryeh Shenkar, for example, one of the pioneers of the textile industry, received a warning letter in December 1925 for failing to comply with the Sanitation Department's demands at his Lodzia factory on Nachmani Street.
The management of the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium did not obey the municipal law properly either: In an original document from March 1926, the institution received a "report" (a violation ticket) following "a telephone call from (Haim) Bograshov about the garbage at the Gymnasium." The claim was that the school had failed to open its doors during the garbage removal times, "causing a lot of garbage to pile up, and it was difficult to remove it just once."
The cleaner who ran the country
At first, the responsibility for the city's cleaning was given to a contractor who hired Hebrew laborers, mostly new immigrants. One of those workers was Shraga Netzer, a passionate Zionist activist who was born in Ukraine. He immigrated to Israel in 1925, settled in Tel Aviv and began working as a laborer at the Sanitary Supervision Department.
At the same time, he became a key activist in the Mapai party. He had a great amount of influence in the party's appointment committees and developed a close relationship with David Ben-Gurion, who headed the Yishuv (the body of Jewish residents in the Land of Israel) at the time and later became the State of Israel's first prime minister.
"Netzer was just a worker at the municipality's cleaning department. He wasn't even the department head," says Regev. "But politically, he was one of the closest people to Ben-Gurion. He had a huge amount of power. At night he would clean the streets of Tel Aviv, and in the morning he would deal with issues of the future state."
A newspaper clip from 1963 documents a major party held in his honor at the Tel Aviv Municipality's Sanitation Department upon his retirement. "I used to be a cleaner myself, and a good one," Netzer concluded.
From the organized documents at the Tel Aviv Municipality Archive, we can learn about the cost and compensation involved in hiring sanitation workers in the young city. In the 1920s, for example, single workers earned 9 liras a month. The mule who pulled their cart cost 4 liras a month, and 8 liras were allotted for "tools and miscellaneous."
Over the years, the workers' equipment was upgraded. In 1936, on the background of the Arab revolt, Tel Aviv became an independent city, the constructed area and the number of residents grew, and the laborers were equipped with waste disposal cars manufactured by Volvo, after a representative of the Swedish company visited Israel.
But it seems the city's streets were never completely clean. An example can be found in a Yedioth Ahronoth article from August 1947, which was published between a story about a tour of Bergen-Belsen and a section from a novel about the absorption of a Holocaust survivor in Israel.
The article featured the impressions of "a guest in Tel Aviv," who wrote that "Tel Aviv is not a clean city. There should be a bin in every street corner for people to throw papers and rubbish and leftover food. The crowd should not get used to negligence."
The sanitation workers' big strikes
The first and major garbage workers' strike was held in 1933. Since then, every few years, the cleaning workers would launch a new battle.
"Garbage piling up on Tel Aviv's streets," a headline cried out in August 1964 after the end of a strike, and the article reported that 40 vehicles were not enough to remove the piled up waste. Waste removal vehicles, equipped with loudspeakers, passed through the different neighborhoods and called on the residents to dispose of their trash.
That year also saw violent clashes between striking cleaning workers and their colleagues who chose to continue working, the waste removal trucks were escorted by the police.
"At the Carmel Market, several strikers tried to stop the operation of a new cleaning vehicle equipped with a brush," it was reported, "and the air was removed from the waste disposal vehicle's wheels."
The first garbage trucks and streets cleaning vehicles were introduced in the 1960s. A bit later, the plastic bins finally replaced the noisy metal bins. "Soon, the cleaning workers will no longer wake us up in the morning," the newspaper reported. "We'll have plastic dustbins which won't make so much noise like the existing bins, which are dragged by the cleaning workers and interrupt the residents' sleep in the early morning hours and in the afternoon."
The garbage also piled up in September 1992 during the cleaning workers' strike in the city. The garbage truck drivers announced that they "would not reverse the trucks to enter streets with no entrance."
Five years later, the Sanitation Department workers went on strike again for six days, and even burned a doll in the image of then-Mayor Roni Milo.
Who's fault is it that the city is dirty?
The 1970s and 1980s, which were characterized by the growing popularity of brands and containers, brought along amounts of trash the municipality couldn't deal with, and Tel Aviv began suffering from an image of being one of the country's most polluted cities.
Yedioth Ahronoth dedicated an entire page to the problem under the headline, "Why isn't Tel Aviv clean?" The deputy mayor admitted in the article that he was unhappy with the situation, but blamed the residents: "The Israelis have a culture of eating outside, and the streets are covered with peels and leftover food. There is also a high rate of disposed containers."
Today, about 10% of the municipality's budget is allotted to cleaning up Tel Aviv – about NIS 500 million ($130 million). "A Tel Avivian disposes of quite a lot of trash, more than residents in other places," says Councilman Itay Pinkas-Arad, who holds the municipality's operations portfolio. "We are talking about 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds) of garbage a day per resident. That eventually piled up to 1,100 tons of garbage a day.
"Now we are distributing orange dustbins in which we will only recycle containers which usually create a lot of volume in the green dustbins. All the containers will be recycled, and it will spare the environment damage and lead to budgetary efficiency."