Gendered Perspectives on Waste in Israel: Review of Existing Knowledge From Academia, Government, and Civil Society, Prospects for Change and Recommendations

Research

In recent years, the global discourse has increasingly highlighted the intersections of gender, the environment, and sustainability. Yet, in Israel, gender perspectives in environmental discussions remain largely unexplored. The Gender and Environment Center at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Israel aims to bridge this gap by fostering knowledge and practical tools. Our inaugural research, 'Gendered Perspectives on Waste in Israel' by Talia Fried and guided by Romy Shapira, offers a unique gender-sensitive lens on waste management in an industrialized country. Stay tuned for more publications exploring gender-environment linkages in Israel.

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‘Waste’ and ‘gender’ are constructs that find expression in every human society, and are nested in the very foundations of our economic, political, and social systems. Therefore, it is not surprising that the relationships between them are numerous. Around the world, waste work is highly differentiated between women and men; for example, women are more active informally as waste pickers and scavengers, while men are more often employed in official, paid sanitation jobs, as workers or managers.[1] Worldwide, women also do the majority of unpaid domestic waste work, and are typically responsible for filling in the gaps when sanitation services are inadequate. At the symbolic level, in many cultures femaleness is associated with dirt, disorder, and impurity; thus waste work is overall more stigmatizing for women. Girls and women worldwide are also usually worse-served by public sanitation infrastructure, due to under-representation in planning decisions, and to their vulnerability to shaming, harassment and gender-based violence when trying to access them.

In the West, the relationships between waste and gender are not usually examined explicitly. Nonetheless, the separation of ‘public’ versus ‘private’ spheres in contemporary industrial society, aligning with the complementary labors of ‘production’ on one side versus ‘consumption’ on the other, have broad ramifications for relations between waste and gender. In waste discourse, it is usually the latter sphere, ‘consumption,’ that is associated with wastefulness, and which is disproportionately researched and addressed in policy. Yet, post-consumer discards actually make up a tiny proportion of the solid waste that humans produce, possibly less than 3% (the majority comes from mining and industry). More generally, researchers tend to share the view that wastes arise in systems of industrial manufacturing, distribution, marketing, energy, and transportation, over which everyday people have almost no oversight or control. Ironically, and unjustly, the blame for waste problems is often pushed onto people who pay the highest price for those problems, and who have the least power to change them — especially women.

In the modern period, the process of industrialization and the transition to a mass consumer economy have impacted gender roles in specific ways. Prior to the industrial era, care work and provisioning were highly gendered activities, but they were recognized as valuable work necessary to sustain human life. With the transition to modern capitalist economies, these activities became devalued and misrecognized as leisurely ‘consumption.’ The transition to mass-produced products also eliminated women’s handiwork knowledge, and has put women on a ‘treadmill of consumption’ to meet ever-rising standards of cleanliness, health, and social respectability. Because of their primary role in provisioning for households, women have been subject to changing pressures and campaigns by state governments on matters related to waste. Often, the injunction was to conserve materials and avert wastefulness (asking women to collect scraps during wartime, for example), but other times social pressures went in the opposite direction — encouraging women to unlearn their thrifty habits and to buy more, so that Western economies could grow.

Waste disposal in Israel matches the pattern of other wealthy countries, in that it has become much more plentiful, more synthetic, more toxic, and contains more diverse and unknown materials than ever before. In recent years Israel has passed several important laws relating to waste treatment, mostly relating to municipal waste. However, waste treatment has proven to be a complex and expensive challenge, and enforcement of environmental laws is sometimes weak. Achieving comprehensive, reliable and transparent data is a recurring problem. Nonetheless, there have been some important successes, such as the Plastic Carrier Bag Law, which placed a small levy on disposable plastic bags in supermarkets and achieved an 80% reduction in their use in its first year of implementation. Although Israelis tend to have a negative view of the state of waste treatment in the country, growing civic activity and popular discussion seem to show that the Israeli public is concerned about waste and is enthusiastic to do something about it.

In addition to the waste materials that have recently been addressed in environmental policy (such as organic waste and packaging), there are growing concerns about some new (and not so new) waste problems: The presence of trash in public spaces; microplastic and marine litter; open waste burning; waste dumping, especially of construction and demolition waste; environmental justice issues relating to waste disposal and treatment in the West Bank; and household hazardous waste.

In academia, waste research is carried out in diverse disciplines that have starkly different understandings of what waste is, why it is problematic, and what should be done about it; and those disciplines are usually not in dialogue (Gille 2007). Approaches that seek operative solutions to waste — such as environmental economics and management — are considered more authoritative, and they inform public discourse and policy more powerfully than interpretive approaches do. However, these quantitative, ‘objective’ perspectives can rest on implicit social assumptions that warrant evaluation and critique. For example, a key assumption in environmental economics is that businesses should be incentivized to meet environmental goals, and that protecting the environment should be worthwhile for them. In contrast, interpretive approaches emphasize the need to educate and empower the public to demand compliance and accountability from industry, even if doing so comes at a financial cost. Another common oversight, which is particularly relevant to gender, is that economic models tend to overlook the domestic invisible labor that is required to make waste schemes profitable; since such work is unpaid, it literally does not count. Women are typically under-represented in these same disciplines, and in the political and economic power structures that they buttress. More generally, women and disempowered groups tend to lose out when the means of describing the world eschew knowledge that gives expression to data that is embodied, subjective, particular, and local. In Israeli academia, waste has been a relatively marginal topic of interest, and of the few published studied relating to waste, most have been written from natural science or non-interpretive approaches (such as law, environmental economics, planning, and others). More recently there has been a flourishing of attention to waste from a broader range of disciplines.

Some key points of debate in waste research relate to: the primacy of recycling and ‘proper’ disposal as normative endpoints and goals for research and policy; the problem of scale, which can drastically alter how waste problems are measured and who are included as stakeholders in them; the research lacuna of waste dynamics inside the home; and the question of the appropriate ‘unit of analysis’ — for example, should one examine waste as a function of individual values, attitudes and behaviors, or should consumption and disposal be viewed as practices that are distributed in social-technical systems more broadly? Whether or how women resist conditions that give rise to excessive waste, or pursue alternatives to them, are also an ongoing and ever-relevant questions.

A feminist or gender-sensitive lens is rare in policy and analysis of waste in wealthy industrialized countries. There is a chronic absence of reliable and comprehensive empirical data, and even more so, data that is disaggregated by sex. Therefore, it seems premature to propose concrete policy changes that should be advanced in Israel. Nonetheless, it is possible to point more generally to aspects of waste relations that could be evaluated and possibly reconsidered through a feminist lens. These include the need for a more global perspective on who is impacted by modes of industrial extraction and manufacturing; the need to recover the transformative and critical capacities of environmental education (in which recycling companies and their motivations play an outsized role); advancing more social and interdisciplinary research on waste, especially inside the home; exploring ways to ‘dematerialize prosperity’ and decarbonize the economy by meeting human needs more collectively, rather than through private consumption; examining the relationship of overwork to overconsumption, particularly as it relates to women’s participation in the labor market and men’s participation in household care work; and advancing people’s rights with regard to waste problems and their solutions, including the right to sanitation, the right to repair, and the right to information.

Women are inordinately active on waste issues in Israel: diverting unused medicines to people who need them, leading the struggle against asbestos pollution and illegal dumping, succeeding in banning disposable plastics in schools, organizing community composting programs and cooperative ownership of reusable products. It would be worthwhile to survey and examine these initiatives, and to ask the women behind them how they envision their future growth. ‘Re-commoning’ is a new and powerful term that describes feminist efforts to defend common resources, and to recover shared ways of living that are independent of market relationships — centering community, mutual well-being and care in place of exploitation and alienation. This heuristic is useful to imagining how gender equality and environmental responsibility can be promoted together, as well as to appreciating the initiatives that already do this and which should be supported.

A final important point is that while gender and waste are closely interrelated, they never operate alone, but are always mediated through other crucial social categories: class, race, religion, nationality, and others. Therefore, in continuing to explore relationships between waste and gender, one should always aspire to a multi-variable perspective that takes diverse social considerations and standpoints into account.

Introduction

‘Waste’ and ‘gender’ find expression in every human society. Every culture expresses some form of gender distinction (albeit in varied ways), and since the dawn of the human species, people have been discarding things — shells, shards, bones, seeds — as what we would now call ‘waste’ (Smith 2010). The global significance of waste is hard to overstate. As wastes continually grow in quantity, complexity, and toxicity worldwide, their handling is subject to vociferous discussion, both within and between countries. These debates touch on questions of environmental justice, public health, who should benefit from or be responsible for natural resources, and which economic and legal mechanisms can best manage the problems of waste minimization, treatment, transport, exchange, and disposal. These issues have existential implications for those who must cope with the most deleterious aspects of waste, and more broadly for the viability of life on our planet.

Gender is a universal and fundamental dimension of social organization, and for at least a generation, many observers have noted the importance of relating environmental concerns to issues of gender equality and social justice. However, there is very little concrete discussion of the relationship between waste and gender in the global North, including in Israel. This paper seeks to outline some key connections between the themes of gender and waste, with a view to highlighting sites of potential exchange, both in the interest of promoting gender equality, and for enriching how we think about and cope with waste. In this text, I take ‘gender’ to mean the social construction of unequal human categories in relation to biological sex. For the definition of ‘waste,’ I use the common principle of ‘anything someone discards or intends to discard’ (Pongrácz and Pohjola 2004). Instantiations of ‘waste’ can be as variable as human expressions of ‘gender’; in this text, I focus mainly on municipal solid waste, which is the type most often researched and regulated, and which is the most conspicuous in public discussion.

Waste and Gender: Making Connections

How can we bring such broad and overarching themes as ‘waste’ and ‘gender’ together? In the broadest sense, connections between waste and gender can be observed in four interlinked spheres: waste in the workplace, at home, in public spaces, and as symbolically related concepts (Dias and Ogando 2016).

Throughout the world, both women and men carry out waste work. And in every part of the world, that work is highly and specifically divided between them (Furniss 2012; Mehra et al. 1996; Nikolova 2012). Most of the garbage collection around the world is done by men, most of the domestic work is done by women. In the world of sanitation and paid waste-work, women tend to be overrepresented in the informal sector (scavenging, cleaning, or sorting waste materials) and underrepresented in the better-paying formal sector (street-sweeping, driving garbage trucks, operating recycling firms, or managing sanitation workers; Lynn, Rech, and Samwel 2016; Ocean Conservancy 2019; UNEP and IETC 2019; Woroniuk and Schalkwyk 1998). When informal sanitation and waste work becomes professionalized and recognized, women tend to be pushed out, as men take over the now better-paying and more secure jobs (IETC 2015; Samson 2003; WEDC 1998). Within the informal sector, gender roles tend to be distinct and unequally compensated: for example, women sort and prepare scrap materials for the market, which men then bale and sell; or boys acquire scraps and girls clean them. Women and girls generally earn less than men and boys. Their activities are restricted due to the threat of sexual harassment and violence, and the stigma of waste work is more consequential for girls and women. It may ‘brand’ them as prostitutes, precluding subsequent options for paid income, unlike boys and men who can transition more easily from waste work into other kinds of paid labor.

In the domestic sphere, women generally carry out the unpaid waste-work of cleaning, provisioning, and putting out the trash. Globally, women do two or three times as much unpaid household labor as men; and when quantifying work hours overall, including both paid and unpaid labor, women work about twice as many hours as men do (ILO 2018). But when it comes to exerting their influence in the public sphere, women are less frequently consulted in planning sanitation services for their communities, have less access to the ears of decision-makers, and less bargaining power vis-à-vis employers and officials. When sanitation services fail to serve a community’s needs, moreover, many studies show that women are more negatively impacted. They, more than men, are expected to fill the service vacuum through cleaning and care work, which they do anyway without pay (Samson 2003).

Finally, at the symbolic level, in many cultures femaleness is associated with dirt, disorder, and impurity[2]; and it is women’s responsibility to maintain proper hygiene, a role that can be significantly entwined with norms of ethnic and moral purity (Beall 1997; Douglas 1966). Women are more stigmatized regarding hygiene (especially with respect to menstruation and sexuality), and are worse served by public sanitation, as they are at greater risk for sexual and other violence when trying to access it. This contributes to girls and women worldwide being generally less mobile than boys and men, a disparity that exacerbates gaps in education, work, and leisure opportunities. These also compound experiences of shame and isolation, which impact the mental health of girls and women (Geertz and Iyer 2018).

If one were to Google the terms ‘waste’ and ‘gender’ — as the author did, in preparing this study — one would find that almost all results point to research cases in the global South. Most of that research is carried out in the framework of international development projects, which explicitly encourage a gender-sensitive lens.[3] In turning one’s attention to wealthy, industrialized countries, however, gender recedes as an explicit analytical dimension. The 1,177-page-long Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste, for example, contains entries on myriad topics from ‘acid rain’ to ‘zero waste,’ but not one relating explicitly to ‘gender,’ ‘sex’ or ‘women’ (Zimring and Rathje 2012). This absence is curious, since the gendered aspects of waste relations that are so often pointed to in the poorer countries — the strict gendered division of waste work, the unequal burden of unpaid waste-related labor in the home, the association of femaleness with bodily pollution and stigma, the inattention of public infrastructure to sanitation or bodily needs[4] — are just as valid in wealthy countries, even if their consequences may appear more subtle.

One of the most fundamental aspects of the structure of contemporary society is the division between the ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. This distinction crystallized with the industrialization and modernization of the Western world, and remains a central (if much debated and contested) feature of contemporary life, both in framing its basic structure and in expressing an ideology of how society should ideally be organized. The ‘public’ sphere encompasses politics, institutions, and paid work, which came to be dominated by men; while the private sphere of personal relations, family life, and the home, came to encompass women’s natural ‘place.’ Feminist theorists have long critiqued this arrangement, which consolidates the power of privileged men over human affairs, to the detriment of diverse human perspectives and needs.

The public/private distinction has many implications for exploring relations between waste and gender. One of these has to do with gendered labor. The public sphere of industrial production is mainly controlled by men, while the work of reproduction — raising children, maintaining homes, and guarding moral values — is left to women. Although this distinction may sound patriarchal and outdated, the gendered division of labor remains stark even in ‘liberal’ Western societies (including Israel). With respect to waste, it is notable that there is a profound disproportion in the attention given to household waste arising in the private sphere, versus wastes that arise in the public spheres, such as from mining and processing resources or fabricating products. MacBride (2013) estimates that despite the charisma of household garbage and the breadth of policy efforts to cope with it, it only makes up about 3% of the solid waste that human beings generate. Waste from industrial, manufacturing, and mining sources is much more abundant, but receives much less attention in the public imagination and in environmental policy. Further, the success and popularity of recycling since the dawn of the modern environmental movement has had little discernible benefit in terms of averting pollution or conserving resources or energy; MacBride, 2013.

One could argue that the disproportionate attention given to household waste has little to do with sexism or gender, but merely reflects that household waste is more familiar to the public and thus that it is easier to gather political will to deal with it. Even so, a consequence of the disparity is that women, at least implicitly, are held to a higher standard of responsibility for waste than men, relative to their actual power over the amounts and toxicity levels of wastes that human beings generate. Waste that arises in the home is policed more intensely and explicitly as a moral or environmental failure than waste arising from industrial activity, which remains relatively invisible. Environmental policies, public relations campaigns, and school curricula frame the solution to waste problems almost exclusively in terms of individual consciousness and behavior regarding household waste — making better personal choices, buying fewer clothes or consumer products, or making efforts to recycle. Moreover, the task of rearing children to be more aware and responsible about household waste, also lies disproportionately with women as teachers and parents.

This asymmetry extends into cultural notions about waste, which continue to disproportionately implicate women. In Israeli public discussion, waste problems are associated with critiques that Israeli society has become too materialistic, that people go shopping instead of engaging in the social and civic activities that sustained them in the past, and have lost their strong commitment to collective values. These critiques are often organized under the rubric of a ‘culture of consumption.’ In the media and popular discourse, the ‘culture of consumption’ is exemplified by parents who spend a small fortune on birthday parties and gifts for their children, instead of the modest and informal ways of the past; as a person who redecorates and refurnishes their home according to any latest fashion, rather than using things up for as long as they physically last; or the vacationer who goes abroad mostly to shop. In these and other examples, the implicit gender identity of the Israeli ‘power-shopper’ is female. The woman or mother is the person who typically plans birthdays, redecorates the home, and is perceived to enjoy shopping as a favorite activity.

This implicitly sexist view bears important ramifications for framing why waste is a problem and what should be done about it. Waste is framed as an individualistic problem, the consequence of people making poor choices or having faulty character, instead of something that is situated in systems of industrial manufacturing, distribution, marketing, energy and transportation, over which everyday people have almost no knowledge or control. The woman in line at a Duty Free shop exemplifies the ‘culture of consumption’ that creates so much waste, but the owners of the chain stores, the manufacturers of the products, the political and business leaders who have a much greater influence over industries and their environmental consequences, are not seen to personify it. They exist as a vague part of the background. This makes capitalist structures seem like a built-in part of reality that we cannot quite see, or even hope to change. The best we can do is to become ‘better,’ more ‘educated’ consumers, i.e., to adapt ourselves to power relations rather than entering into and changing them. In contrast to this view, critical waste researchers state that people in the West actually have an exaggerated view of their degree of personal control over waste (Cowan 1983; Gille 2012; Oldenziel and Weber 2013; see also Packard 1960).

Another angle to this problem is that women’s work in the private sphere is devalued; caring for oneself and others is a form of work that itself becomes ‘wasteful.’ Prior to WWI, it seemed obvious to most people that acquiring and preparing food, fabricating tools, sewing clothes, cleaning, raising children, and other domestic tasks were a form of work and that they were essential to sustaining life. Following the industrial revolution, and especially with mass production, the private sphere of the home became associated with relaxation and comfort, an escape from the ‘dirty’ reality of paid labor outside. Buying food and clothes (instead of growing or making them) was still women’s work, but became perceived as a leisurely activity[5] (Cowan 1983, 1996; Gille 2012; Illich 1980; Spencer-Wood 2012). The stereotype of the woman as a mindless shopper, someone who squanders her time and income on shallow interests, does a double injustice. It misrecognizes the very real, important, and laborious responsibilities of provisioning for self and families as superficial ‘consumption,’ and then disproportionately chastises women who do that work, for creating so much ‘waste.’

Strasser’s book Waste and Want explores the history of household waste in North America, paying attention in particular to the transition to an economy of mass production from the 1880s to the 1920s and how these were expressed in everyday life. She elaborates the complex, often forgotten, power struggles in getting women to accept a range of products and take their necessity for granted. Her description of the rise of the disposable ‘Dixie cup’ illuminates the intense efforts that were required to naturalize certain types of products in the consumer landscape, and the extent to which these negotiations have been forgotten. (Although the ‘Dixie cup’ is not relevant specifically to women, it is a powerful illustration). In 1917, when disposable cup dispensers were installed in public places — in place of the free, reusable ones that had been available before — people rallied against such objectionable wastefulness, sometimes violently. It took time and pressure for products to enter and establish themselves in the market. At first disposable cups were made from sturdy paper, which people sought to fold and reuse again. Gradually manufacturers made the cups flimsier, so that users would not succeed in reusing them. A powerful way to diffuse products was through fear-mongering (of dirt and germs), and pressuring new standards of social acceptance and respectability (of cleanliness, novelty, convenience), which were particularly aimed at women consumers. These processes also took place in Europe, but later in the century.

One of the important outcomes of mass production that Strasser emphasizes, and that is relevant to gender, is the erasure of local knowledge and craft practices. In 1900, women and men both shared a rich knowledge of how to repair, maintain, or ‘recycle’ (though that word wasn’t used yet) everyday materials — such as metal, wood, fabric, animal products, candle wax, or food remnants. With the shift to mass production and marketing from 1880 to 1920, these skill sets were lost. It is interesting to note her description of women’s response to the mass production of Kotex sanitary pads, since it illustrates how women’s natural response, at the time, was to treat the pads like any other kind of material that entered the home, to be crafted and reworked according to one’s individual needs and tastes:

“Because they knew how to assemble pads according to their personal preferences and their individual bodies, these women did not simply accept a standardized product. Instead, they treated the pads they bought as materials, not finished products. Eighty-one percent of… respondents [in an industry study] altered commercial napkins before using them. They shortened tabs, cut corners, and shifted the padding around — removing excess, adding filling from another napkin, or changing the shape by transferring filling from the ends to the middle…. Women in the 1920s approached this purchased product as something malleable” (Strasser, 1999, p. 164).

Today, some readers might think it distasteful or odd for someone to ‘hack’ their sanitary napkins in such a manner. But perhaps this demonstrates precisely how much our relationships to products have changed and become more passive. Even when people try to resist and rework everyday consumer products, we would find our efforts thwarted by features to prevent this (e.g., printer ink or smartphone chargers that are designed to work only with a specific brand).

There is another relationship between gender and waste that emerges from a surprising direction — material reclamation drives and waste-diversion under national economic policies and war. Waste today is usually perceived as a problem that concerns environmental movements and the political left. But throughout most of the twentieth century, actions to avoid waste, to collect scraps and divert them back to industry were especially intensified in times of war. The first mandatory curbside recycling programs were initiated during WWII in Great Britain and Germany. Scrap drives exhorted housewives to collect used paper, to salvage bones and grease from the kitchen for the purpose of manufacturing glycerin for explosives, or to recruit schoolchildren to gather acorns for food. Salvaging drives were organized to meet acute material shortages, but they also served a significant ideological and psychological purpose in recruiting the ‘home front’ — women, children and the elderly — into the war effort (Denton and Weber 2018; Gilstrap 2012). While the effectiveness of the drives cannot be assessed with certainty, Oldenziel and Weber conclude that they “not only failed to improve citizens’ living conditions; they contributed first and foremost to the war machinery. The drives actually put an extraordinary burden on citizens, in particular on women,” who were exploited, along with children, “as unpaid waste collectors” (Oldenziel and Weber 2013, 364).

The nationalistic context for waste diversion shows that efforts to deal with waste can have drastically different political meanings and goals. Capitalist societies attach a particularly negative meaning to ‘waste’ as squandering or inefficiency. But capitalist systems are themselves extremely wasteful: consider the amounts of ‘surplus’ food that are destroyed every year while people go hungry, or the products that are destroyed wholesale, to preserve market dominance and demand (Macbride 2008). We should remember that waste ethics are variable and can change over time. For example, just as women in the West were exhorted in wartime to be especially thrifty and to collect every last scrap to benefit the war effort, after WWII the exhortation turned on its head in many Western economies. Governments and industries together sought to pressure women to unlearn their thrifty habits so that markets would grow. For example, European housewives in the 1960s were encouraged to let go of their wartime and post-war habits of reuse, so that they would accept the idea that bottles and packages were meant to be thrown away, allowing those business sectors to expand (Oldenziel and Weber 2013). In the United States, hygiene reformers encouraged women to reject reusable products in favor of disposable paper and plastic ones, for the sake of health and cleanliness (Strasser 1999).

To summarize this section, we can conclude that both waste and gender are fundamental, constitutive themes of social organization. Although researchers have given more explicit attention to the relations between gender and waste in the global South, patterns play out similarly worldwide: waste work is highly gendered, with women doing more of the unpaid domestic labor, and holding the less lucrative jobs in the paid sector, than men. Women have less influence and public say regarding sanitation issues in their communities, and are worse served by them. At a symbolic level, women’s bodies are associated with dirt and disorder, and they are expected to maintain the boundaries of purity in the community, on penalty of stigma or expulsion.

In the industrialized West, the gender/waste nexus can be situated in the framework of the separation of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres. Household waste is accorded profoundly disproportionate attention compared to waste arising from industrial, manufacturing, and mining activities, even though it makes up only about 3% of the solid waste generated by human beings. Women are thus implicitly held to a higher standard of responsibility for wastefulness. ‘Their’ waste is more visible and illustrative of moral and environmental failure. In a related fashion, waste is mischaracterized as a choice that can be solved by raising consciousness and encouraging personal effort, rather than a structural problem that requires greater public transparency and accountability. An added layer of injustice is that women’s ‘unproductive’ work of caring and provisioning is itself considered wasteful, and is framed reductively as trivial ‘consumption.’

Finally, it is important to remember that the gendered implications of waste are historically situated, and that waste ethics change. Although waste issues are framed contemporarily under the banner of environmentalism and associated with the political left, salvaging and recycling practices have long histories and at times had starkly nationalistic dimensions. Particularly during wartime, women were exhorted to conserve and salvage scraps for the benefit of the military effort or to strengthen the national economy. In other periods, the opposite was the case — women were encouraged to unlearn their thrifty habits and accept that some things should be bought and thrown away after just one use, for the sake of hygiene or to encourage certain product markets to grow.

The Local Context: Waste and Environmental Policy in Israel

The amount of household trash discarded in Israel today is estimated at about 1.9 kilos per person per day, most of which is landfilled (Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection 2014; Netzer 2018). That quantity is almost twice what was discarded 50 years ago (Peleg 1982), and is expected to double again by 2056 (Tal 2016). The composition of Israeli household trash reflects a trend in Western industrialized countries toward greater quantities of household trash, that is also more synthetic, more toxic, and contains more diverse and unknown materials than ever before (Geiser 2001; OECD 2002). In recent years Israel has passed several important laws relating to waste treatment, which are detailed below. However, waste treatment has proven to be a complex and expensive challenge, and enforcement of environmental laws is inconsistent and weak. Achieving comprehensive, reliable and transparent data on the scope of waste problems and the impacts of different policy options has also been a recurring problem (IUED 2019 “Life in the Garbage”; Rosenblum and Ostrovsky 2013).

Israelis often bemoan the sorry state of waste treatment compared to other Western, industrialized countries, but it should be noted there is a long history in Israel and Palestine of composting and recycling even prior to the present era of ‘sustainable’ waste treatment. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, municipal waste composting was commonplace at centralized, industrial facilities across the country (Rosen 1971; Tal 2002a); at the end of the 1960s, about 40% of Israeli municipal waste was composted, mainly for application to citrus farming (Tal 2002a). In the early years of the state, recycling was hailed as a means to relieve dependence on imported raw materials, to reduce foreign currency expenditures, and to strengthen local industry. However, these efforts mostly took place in commercial entities and factories, and so were largely invisible to the public.

“Hatzofeh” newspaper
A news item in “Hatzofeh” newspaper illustrates early enthusiasm for waste recycling in Israel (although the term ‘recycling’ — miḥzur — was not then in use). The article describes dozens of products that innovative Israeli industries could manufacture from waste and scrap: tableware out of paper scraps and cotton waste, insulation bricks from reeds, buttons and soap from old bones, and many other colorful examples (“Our Great Blessing” 1943)A news item in “Hatzofeh” newspaper illustrates early enthusiasm for waste recycling in Israel (although the term ‘recycling’ — miḥzur — was not then in use). The article describes dozens of products that innovative Israeli industries could manufacture from waste and scrap: tableware out of paper scraps and cotton waste, insulation bricks from reeds, buttons and soap from old bones, and many other colorful examples (“Our Great Blessing” 1943).

The Ministry of Environmental Protection passed key recycling legislation in the 1990s, including the Collection and Disposal of Waste for Recycling Law (1993), which remains the principle legal framework for waste recycling in Israel, and the Deposit on Beverage Containers Law (1999), an extended producer responsibility (EPR) law that imposes a deposit on small beverage bottles and that requires commercial bodies to collect and recycle the used bottles according to graduated targets. More recently, in 2007, the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection undertook a ‘recycling revolution’ that again put waste treatment at the forefront of agenda (Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection 2018a). Based on the EU Waste Directive, its cornerstone was the initiation of a levy on landfilling that was meant to leverage the viability of treatment alternatives such as composting and recycling. Income from the levy is used to promote recycling programs, education, and remediation projects. Despite the massive investment, however, it has proven difficult to establish a strong local recycling industry, and since the ‘revolution’ began, most observers conclude that there has been almost no change in the national landfilling rate (IUED 2019 “Life in the Garbage”; “Revolution!” 2017; Rinat 2017).

Most ‘recycling revolution’ policies related to municipal waste, and the outcomes for some key materials are detailed in the Table below. With a few exceptions[6], there is almost no national action or data collection regarding wastes from mining or industry.

Table 1: Recent policy interventions and outcomes for some key waste streams

Organic waste Food scraps make up a relatively high proportion of Israeli garbage (35-40%) and are a significant source of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Israel has had a long-standing interest in composting organic waste from the municipal stream for application as soil amendment, with varying degrees of success. This was revived under the ‘recycling revolution’ initiated by then-environmental minister Gilad Erdan, in which separating household waste into ‘wet’ (compostable) versus ‘dry’ (recyclable) steams was the proposed backbone. However, the policy was largely abandoned when it became clear that the municipal organic waste stream is too polluted and its treatment too expensive, compared to other potential sources of compost (like animal manure or agricultural waste). In 2018, the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection revised its plan, now prioritizing waste-to-energy over recycling, and anaerobic digestion (a controlled degradation of organic matter in a closed facility, so as to recoup methane for energy) over composting. The new strategy also prioritizes collecting organic waste from restaurants and institutions, rather than households.
Paper Amnir, a subsidiary of the Hadera Paper manufacturing company, is the main collector of waste paper in Israel and also collects some post-consumer plastic. Reports of the extent of paper recycling in Israel have varied widely in the past. Presently, the company reports that it “collects and handles 400,000 metric tons of raw materials that are transferred to the recycling industry” (Hadera Paper n.d.)
Bottles The Israeli Bottle Bill was passed in 1999 following bottom-up pressure from environmental groups (Yerushalmi 2015). The law is popular with the Israeli public, and is credited with helping to reduce litter in public places (Ayalon et al. 2010), but remains controversial since it is expensive to implement and only applies to small bottles under 1.5 liters. Data on its implementation are intensely disputed (Ilnai 2018). 
Packaging The Packaging Law, an EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) law passed in 2011, requires the importers and producers of packaging to subsidize its separate collection and treatment. This program is broadly visible on the Israeli streetscape, dotted now in many towns with orange bins for packaging refuse. Ultimately, the intention of the law — to nourish a local recycling industry — has faltered due to weak enforcement (i.e., businesses work around the law by finding ways to offload trash quickly and cheaply, rather than transferring it to recycling bodies as required; Nissim 2019).
Glass  Through the 1970s, glass bottles in Israel were returnable for deposit. In the 1980s they were almost totally replaced by nonrefundable plastic, bringing recycling rates to nil (Tal 2002a). The Waste Master Plan of 2005 estimated 20% of postconsumer glass was recycled in Israel. As of 2015 about 30,000 tons were recycled each year, well below national targets (CBS 2015; “Where are the Packages?” 2014). Under the Bottle Bill, glass bottles are collected alongside plastic bottles and cans, but this remains a relatively marginal player. 
Electronic waste The Electronic Waste Law of 2012, which draws on the European WEEE Directive, seeks to pressure industry to manufacture electronics that are safer and more easily recyclable, by requiring importers and producers to meet recycling targets. The law sets out in detail who can be recognized as an official collector of electronic waste, but does not specify who can be an official recycler. About half of the e-waste in Israel ultimately reaches the informal market in the West Bank, where several Palestinian communities in south Hebron earn their living processing and selling the e-waste (as well as other types of wastes; ARIJ 2014; Davis and Garb 2019) . The law has been very slow to come into effect, and the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection has not published data on its implementation (IUED and AJEEC-NISPED 2017). 
Plastic Carrier Bags The Plastic Bag Law of 2016 draws from an amendment to the European Parliament and Council Directive 94/62/EC on packaging waste, imposing a levy of 0.1 NIS (about three cents) on thin, single-use bags (Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection 2015). The law has been a dramatic and quick success, most Israelis support it and consumption of plastic bags dropped 80% already in the first year, which is considered a broad success (Kane 2018; “Success for the Bag Law” 2017).
Textiles Textiles receive little attention in recycling discourse and policy. Sidewalk receptacles for used clothes have sprouted across the country in the past decade, often bearing the company name “Roznir,” but the company does not provide interviews or site visits. Ostensibly, textiles are sorted for re-sale, or turned into rags; the excess may be burned for fuel in the West Bank.

 

Table 1 above  summarizes the key points about the main waste streams that have been addressed recently in environmental policy. For most streams, data on waste quantities, landfilling, and diversion rages are porous. Moreover, so far as I am aware, there is no data that examines aspects of these policies directly in connection to sex or gender. However, there are a few gender-related issues that could be explored. Foremost, there is a stark gender disparity in how men versus women participate in carrying the above policies and how their lives or livelihoods might be impacted by them. As stated elsewhere in this paper, coping with waste on a personal and day-to-day level (shopping choices, housework, sorting trash for recycling, and so on) are disproportionately female responsibilities. In Israel, as in most of the world, there remains a deep disparity in the amount of time that women versus men invest in these activities. Textiles might be an especially strong example, considering how unbalanced the financial and time burden on women to choose and purchase clothing for themselves and for family members, to launder and fix them, and so on. Second, many of the above policies entail an economic mechanism that makes waste, at the municipal or household level, more expensive to deal with (for example via the landfill levy, bottle deposit, or plastic bag levy). These funds are meant to discourage landfilling and consumption, and to subsidize anti-waste activities (recycling programs, public relations campaigns, etc.). This also begs the question of how the costs and benefits of waste policies are distributed among men versus women. In Israel, the people who are in key positions in industry — importers, manufacturers, heads of recycling corporations and scrap collection firms — are almost all male. It is possible that women and people of modest income are disproportionately paying for environmental policies with their time, money, and goodwill, in a manner that transfers certain benefits up the economic ladder or concentrates them into only a few hands.

Emerging (and Perennial) Issues

Among environmental scientists, journalists and NGOs, a number of waste issues are lately commanding renewed attention. Although it may seem an old-fashioned problem, littering in public parks, natural areas and beaches is a recurring concern (Negev 2016). A study by the Tourism Ministry found that visitors rate Israel as a dirty country (IUED 2019 “Life in the Garbage”); and a report by the Knesset Research and Information Center pointed to weak enforcement and insufficient oversight to deter the phenomenon (Begano 2020 “Not Keeping Clean”; “New Knesset Report”). A related issue is marine plastic pollution and the consumption of disposable plastic products. A 2019 report by the World Wildlife Fund found that about 21 kilograms of waste wash up on Israeli beaches per kilometer of beachfront, and that the concentration of micro-plastic is much higher than in other parts of the Mediterranean (Rinat 2019 “Tel Aviv Ranks Third”). In another study, scientists estimated that Israelis ingest about 2,000 particles of plastic per year (for example, in consuming table salt; Van der Hal, 2019). The IUED is seeking a ban on some of the most dangerous plastic products, like drinking straws and Styrofoam, and is seeking to apply EPR regulations to others (Begano 2019; IUED 2019 “Life in the Garbage”). Two cities — Herzliya and Eilat — have already passed bylaws prohibiting visitors from bringing disposable plastic items onto the beach (Döhler 2019).

Israelis produce 6.2 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) waste per year, about a quarter of which is dumped in public spaces. This problem has been especially evident in the vicinity of Palestinian communities (IUED n.d.). Since the construction of the West Bank barrier the phenomenon has moved from outside to inside the Green Line, and with the initiation of the landfill levy, it has extended to include mixed household waste alongside construction debris. Oftentimes the perpetrator is a sanitation truck driver who has been hired to collect household waste from a municipality, but then surreptitiously dumps it so as to save the landfilling cost (Rinat 2019 “Israel’s Negev”). Palestinian communities suffer greatly from this problem, and are often blamed for failing to deal with it, though these same communities are not necessarily the perpetrators of the waste dumping to begin with.

Waste burning is also a serious health issue. The Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection reports there are some 300 sites where garbage is burned regularly; and estimates that garbage fires account for 60% of suspected carcinogenic emissions (Rinat 2019 “Burning Garbage”; Rinat 2018). The Ministry has established a unit in the Nature and Parks Authority to inspect fires so that perpetrators can be prosecuted. The relationship between burning garbage and inadequate collection is something that requires more investigation. The provision of sanitation services is a municipal responsibility, which can be lacking in some places because a community is not officially recognized by the state or because it lacks the funds to pay for it. The Ministry has made some investments to tackle this problem; for example, the “Sviva Shava” program advanced under former Environmental Minister Amir Peretz, and a 2017 government decision allocating funds to improve garbage collection and sewage infrastructure in East Jerusalem (Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection 2018b).

Environmental justice issues in the West Bank — such as the operation of the Tovlan landfill, and of highly-polluting recycling facilities — receive little attention in the Israeli press, though they have been documented by B’Tselem, Who Profits, and on Social TV. Carmit Lubanov of the Association for Environmental Justice in Israel and Mossi Raz of the Meretz Party have recently condemned the government decision to construct a waste-to-energy plant in Ma’aleh Adumim. The decision contravenes international law and takes advantage of the residents’ inability to influence the planning or to meaningfully resist the plant (Lubanov and Raz 2020). In the context of the ongoing occupation, these demonstrate that wastes originating in Israeli Jewish society are chronically displaced onto Palestinian land and bodies.

Finally, household toxic waste is an issue that receives little attention in policy or the media. In Israel there is no a legal definition of ‘household toxic waste,’ and no current data or national framework to deal with the issue. Acetone, bleach, medications, insecticides — virtually all of these go down the drain, or to the landfill mixed in with regular trash. Household toxins are especially dangerous to children, and while ‘toxic waste’ sounds like something that lurks far away in industrial facilities or burial sites, the health risks from hazardous chemicals are actually four times higher inside one’s home than outside. Moreover, virtually every person on earth carries some chemical pollution inside their body (MacBride 2008; World Wildlife Fund 2003). The gendered significance here is that in contemporary Western society, the home is framed as women’s ‘natural’ place, and caring for the body is considered a particularly feminine job. Yet, the private sphere that is considered a supposed bulwark of cleanliness, safety and morality that is set against the outside world, is actually completely embedded in that world and just as dangerous, perhaps even more so. Some NGOs that have been active on the issue of household toxic waste include: IUED (Adam, Teva v-Din), the Coalition for Public Health, and Amutat Negev Bar Kayma (Mir 2012).

a 1960s advertisement for “Ammonit” cleaning fluid
Hazardous household waste is a widespread yet under-recognized problem, including everyday products that may be marketed to improve health and cleanliness. This photo shows a 1960s advertisement for “Ammonit” cleaning fluid made by “Kleen – Fertilizers and Chemical Products”

Key Debates in Waste Discourse and Research

Trash is a relatively new interest in Israeli research. In contrast to more strategic projects such as water desalination, afforestation, and the conservation of wetlands, among others, trash has only recently garnered the status of a serious environmental and academic concern.[8] Contemporary Israeli research on waste is almost always written from a natural science perspective or within non-interpretive social science disciplines (such as economics, policy, planning, and law). A few studies have centered on inequities in landfill siting (Feitelson 1996; Oryan 2000; Rosen-Zvi 2007). Other works have focused on how to best enforce waste policies and regulations (Karassin 2009; Tal 2002b), or in isolating factors that can predict pro-environmental behaviors such as recycling (Mintz et al. 2019; Ne'eman-Avramovich and Katz-Gerro 2007; Zibenberg, Greenspan, and Katz-Gerro 2016).

Waste is a highly complex and contested concept in academic scholarship. Research is distributed among disciplines that have starkly different understandings of waste, and which are not often in dialogue with one another (Gille 2007). On one side, roughly, are the interpretive approaches — comparative literature, cultural studies, anthropology and others — which are interested to explore the meanings and symbolic power of waste. They view waste as a fundamental (if endlessly variable) notion across societies, that has much to inform about human values and organization. On the other side are the disciplines that seek operative solutions for waste — sanitation engineering, economics, natural sciences and others. They address waste’s material complexity more concretely than the interpretive sciences do, but reflect little on its crucial social dimensions. The problem, in my estimation, is not that most research ignores the social aspects of waste, but that it incorporates it uncritically, weaving stereotypes and unexamined social assumptions into the analysis, which are then re-circulated into the society as part of ‘learned’ waste knowledge. As might be expected, the operative approaches are considered more authoritative, and they inform public discourse and environmental policy more powerfully than do interpretive approaches. There is an inherent gender imbalance to this state of affairs, since operative approaches are more likely to overlook the political and cultural dimensions of waste, of which feminist concerns are a part.

Below I will briefly touch on some key tensions in the waste world, some of which also bear important gendered ramifications.

A key site of debate is the primacy of recycling as a policy goal and as the object of social research, especially that which uses recycling as a measure of ‘pro-environmental’ behavior or as the goal of environmental education. In contemporary understanding, ‘recycling’ refers to a curbside environmental practice, which sprouted in North America and grew in popularity alongside the spread of the environmental movement in the 1960s and ‘70s (Gilstrap 2012). In political and historical context, policies of curbside recycling were considered a compromise between the environmental movement and powerful industry lobbies, who offered to support curbside programs instead of the more intrusive and expensive alternative of direct government regulation on their manufacturing practices. Curbside recycling programs indeed spread, first to Northern and Western Europe, and later worldwide. Today, they have achieved an almost seamless equivalence between ‘recycling’ and ‘environmental responsibility.’ Despite this fact, there is no strong evidence that recycling lessens energy or resource expenditures or that it reduces pollution (Geiser 2001; MacBride 2012). Where the older guard of Israeli environmentalists maintains that recycling must play an important role in any national waste strategy, newer voices are questioning this orthodoxy (Ostrovsky 2016; Shtibelman and Hefer 2016; Tal 2016).

A corollary debate regards the primacy of disposal in research and in definitions of waste. A prevalent definition of waste is ‘any material that is discarded or that a person intends to discard.’ Indeed, the point of disposal is crucial for the running of municipal programs to collect and treat waste: once a person has discarded their trash into one bin or another, it quite literally becomes someone else’s treasure — the property of the body that installed the bins, and who will recoup their investment by returning to collect the contents. In social research, however, there is growing attention to the many ways that wastes circulate in societies (besides the one-way route to the bin) — hoarding, gift-giving, storing, donating, avoiding, mending, reselling, and other practices, whether among close family or neighbors, or in global markets for used materials. Looking at waste as circulating (rather than static) material can change the style and scale of research, for example, following waste materials along global networks (rather than measuring them in the bin) to see the different forms of social organization, forms of work as well as local harms or benefits that arise in each place (Bulkeley and Gregson 2009; Evans 2011; Gregson et al. 2010; Hetherington 2004). This shift allows scholars to appreciate the subjective and relational dimensions of waste flows, rather than analyzing them solely on a financial or legal basis.

Scale is another key problematic in discussions of waste. In everyday parlance, the word ‘scale’ usually evokes a mathematical relationship — looking at something close up, as a proportionate miniature of something greater. In waste (and other social) research, however, scale can also have an ‘ontological’ implication; that is, indicating that the quality of a problem, its very nature, can be categorically different depending on where and how it is measured (Swyngedouw 1997). To take an example from the previous section, scholars have noted the irony that in participating so energetically in wartime scrap collection drives, women ultimately contributed to a greater waste — the war itself. In the Israeli context, it is also important to be aware of scale in terms of how waste problems are defined, how much they cost and who they impact. Waste policies are determined by environmental-economic analyses that assess, for example, whether a particular intervention on waste treatment will create local “green” jobs, or how much money it will save on gasoline expenditures for garbage collection. Once the economists and regulators have determined which model will bring the greatest benefit for lowest cost, it is written up as an environmental policy and residents of the country are cajoled to support and take part in it. However, these models are based almost exclusively on the costs and benefits of wastes as within municipal or national boundaries. For example, the models will address the environmental impact of collecting or landfilling a t-shirt, but not the environmental cost of producing that t-shirt (which are probably incurred outside the country). This fosters a nationalistic framing of waste, in which ‘nature’ is coterminous with the boundaries of the state, and constrains the capacity to imagine waste as a collective, planet-wide problem. In particular, this deters the capacity to see and care about the impacts of Israeli consumption and waste on communities around the world. These impacts are particularly disastrous for indigenous and low-income communities, and are often interrelated with physical and economic violence against women (Tran et al. 2020).

Waste research also suffers from a longstanding inside/outside division. Only recently have researchers begun to explore waste dynamics within the home. Ethnographies of domestic waste relations and practice from the UK are especially illuminating (Bulkeley and Gregson 2009; Evans 2014; Fisher et al. 2008; Gregson, Metcalfe, and Crewe 2007). By observing and interviewing people as they buy or throw away things, and sometimes going through the family trash together, researchers have found that most people are actually quite compunctious about their garbage, contradicting the longstanding view in sociology of a ‘throwaway’ personality or culture. These ethnographers analyze garbage as something that arises out of conflicts in the values and rhythms of contemporary family life. For example, a recurring form of waste in many households is over-ripe produce, which the respondent has purchased in the un-extinguishable hope that family members will eat a healthy diet. But the effort is thwarted by picky children, by a sudden surprise in the schedule, by a recipe gone wrong, by the reality that the diets of household members in Western countries tend to be highly differentiated (based on age, sex, health considerations — even pets have their special foods). Guilt and unpredictability are recurring themes in these studies. Generally, researchers conclude that individual values and attitudes about waste do not go far in explaining disposal habits. Instead, consumption and disposal should be seen as practices that are embedded in sociotechnical arrangements that broadly organize the activities of cleaning, shopping, cooking and so on (Shove 2003). Recognizing this requires an analytical move to distribute the accountability for trash into the infrastructures, policies, and social-industrial arrangements in which disposal is situated, rather than solely with the individual — who is usually figured as female.

Israeli recycling policy closely follows the European Directive, and recycling talk is often self-consciously preoccupied with Israel’s standing and character as a (Western) ‘European’ country (Fried, forthcoming). There are many facets to this national self-consciousness regarding waste. One of the features is a recurring belief that the country’s waste challenges are categorically unique compared to other places in the world, and that they possibly reflect a fundamental flaw in national character — sometimes embodied in the figure of the ‘ugly Israeli.’ To what extent are waste problems attributable to ‘culture’ (in the abstract sense of an overarching ‘mentality’ or ‘worldview’), or should more analytical weight be placed on material conditions and infrastructure? Waste is complex and expensive to treat; municipal composting programs, in particular, often fail the world over; and Israelis tend to idealize the landfill-diversion[9] statistics of other places (about which waste researchers are much more suspicious; e.g., MacBride 2013). Israel’s challenges with waste treatment are not categorically unique in the world, and one finds frequent evidence that residents are concerned about waste problems and enthusiastic to change them. For example, an internal “Survey of Recycling Will” by Amnir found 93% of respondents wished to recycle. The Central Bureau of Statistics has found that most Israelis source-separate their waste when services are provided (CBS 2015; see also Blass and Izak 2015). The plastic bag law has been highly successful, much more than expected. This means we have reason for optimism, but also a responsibility to reconsider our assumptions about the source of Israeli waste problems. The implicit gender connection here, is that when one views waste problems as fundamentally a sign of flawed culture, the remedy — better socialization and education (in Hebrew, ‘ḥinuḥ’) is almost exclusively women’s work; whereas if one places responsibility on material conditions and infrastructure, accountability is transferred to more male-dominated fields of engineering, city planning, political leadership and industry.

A final point relates to how women organize themselves in society to seek alternatives to waste-related problems. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ‘materialist feminists’ and many social reformers were certain that as industrialization and technological advances progressed, women would enjoy more communal and cooperative forms of living that would save time, reduce redundancy and waste (Hayden 1985). Early domestic labor-saving devices like washing machines were very large, and meant for use in hotels or institutions. Thus, women imagined that they would join together to own and operate them collectively. Early experiments in cooperative domestic work included community dining, food delivery, and shared laundry rooms. Buckingham (2020) describes contemporary experiments in Europe in cooperative housing, that aim to increase women’s equality and well-being while averting the environmental impacts of traditional, stand-alone family housing. These projects share some similar techniques, such as designing spaces that are flexible and communal, so that residents have more spontaneous opportunities to socialize; planning that assumes facilities and equipment will be shared; and trying to integrate elder- and child-care more fluidly into daily life. In North America, initiatives in cooperative housework mostly disappeared in the course of the twentieth century, as did the political urgency of the questions behind them. Why didn’t these experiments take root and last? Part of the answer may lie in the power of countervailing desires for privacy and independence, or the demands of patriarchal capitalism and the pressures on women to fulfill social norms within the constraints of the nuclear family. Some initiatives were also cut down by the Red Scare , the public panic and repression of socialist organizing in the United States. This history has barely been studied. Thus the question of whether or how women resist waste relations or seek alternatives to them, remains an ongoing and ever-relevant question.

Next Steps and Future Possibilities

Waste and gender are both incredibly broad and complex issues that intersect every aspect of society, and they are nested in the very foundations of our economic, political, and social arrangements. Waste problems around the world, including in Israel, are challenged by the absence of transparent, reliable and comprehensive data. Moreover, a feminist or gender-sensitive lens is rare in the policy world and in the analysis of waste in wealthy, industrialized countries. We lack a strong empirical basis from which to examine and compare particular gender-conscious interventions, and therefore it seems premature to propose concrete policy changes that should be advanced vis-à-vis waste and gender. Nonetheless, it is possible to point more generally to aspects of waste-thinking and waste-making that warrant reconsideration and possible change, if one were to apply a feminist perspective to them. I define ‘feminism’ here as a set of political and epistemic commitments rooted in the recognition of the fundamental equality of all peoples, originating in (but not exclusive to) critiques of gender oppression. These commitments include: recognizing the constructed nature of human categories, and critiquing and resisting relations of domination between them; acknowledging the legitimacy of diverse styles and sources of knowledge (such as indigenous, embodied or subjective sources); fostering inclusive and egalitarian means of acting in the world, including shared access to resources, influence, and to shaping collective narratives and agendas; and promoting relations of care and mutual well-being among people and toward other living and non-living things. Israeli approaches depart from these feminist ideals, in that they characteristically frame waste problems in a neoliberal, nationalistic, and patriarchal manner. The neoliberal policies focus on diverting post-consumer materials from landfill by making recycling more profitable, copying from European models irrespective of growing critique against them (Gille 2007), and there is almost no policy attention to preventing waste ‘upstream.’ It is almost completely taken for granted in the policy world, and even among some influential environmentalists, that waste treatment must provide ‘win-win’ benefits for both the environment and the economy. In addition, Israeli environmentalism is rooted in a Zionist worldview that overwhelmingly shapes its goals, practices and language. These include, for example, the tendency to yoke environmental issues to the goal of affirming the rootedness of the Jewish people in the landscape, or to circumscribe ‘nature’ as a target of environmental protection within the geopolitical boundaries of the state (while ignoring impacts outside). Finally, waste-work and waste-knowledge are characterized by deep and unequal gender divisions. Women predominate in ‘downstream’ jobs such as environmental education, or in the lower-status ministerial positions or municipal leadership, while men control much more influential positions in government and industry. In the environmental movement, as well, the historical figureheads, current leaders and heads of university programs are mainly men, while women are more active in non-governmental and local organizations that wield less power. In a more subtle fashion, the dominant forms of knowledge about waste tend to be exclusionary. Quantitative and economic methodologies reign, while critical and social approaches are rare. This means that certain types of information that are not easily registered in quantitative methods (values, feelings, experiences, context, etc.) are left out, and that research methodologies tend to narrow in on pre-conceived notions of what is worth measuring and what the significance of those measurements will be, instead of opening up the field to voices or considerations that may be overlooked, and that would have deeper conceptual or political consequences for knowledge-production. This likely limits who is imagined to be a legitimate speaker in discussions about waste, or recognized as a stakeholder in those discussions. Taken together, the above characteristics have the effect of depoliticizing waste, narrowing the context in which waste problems are understood and naturalizing the power relations that surround it.

One key area of change might be to promote a more global perspective on waste problems. The contemporary Israeli approach to waste mostly ignores the impacts of material flows outside the boundaries of the country, whether in manufacturing or post-consumer waste treatment. This attitude is quite taken for granted even among environmentalists. However, the targets for reducing the percentage of a particular waste stream from landfill, is only loosely related to the impact of that stream in human or environmental terms. For example, the chief goal of e-waste policy is to maximize the proportion of used electronics that are collected by authorized Israeli companies and diverted from landfill; these tonnages are relatively small, and barely reflect the harms entailed in creating the product, with which the policy is unconcerned. Consider just the lithium battery in a cell phone. In Chile, a world center for lithium mining, this involves pumping thousands of liters of water per second just to extract this mineral, destroying the local water table, diminishing wildlife and trampling the rights of the indigenous people who live there. Not only does the policy disregard these harms, but the broader discourse around waste — the way its harms are perceived — come to take a parochial shape. Global impacts seem peripheral and unimportant, laying outside the imagination of what counts as ‘successful’ waste policy or why waste problems are important. Ironically, it is women’s rights and livelihoods that are especially impacted by intense extraction, as seen, for example, in the murders of women environmental activists.

Trash is powerful visual and sensory material. It evokes strong emotions like curiosity and disgust. It is also made of tangible stuff, which observers can recognize and follow, tracing global environmental and social problems that might otherwise seem abstract. In this way trash has a wonderful teaching potential for environmental education. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the field remains underdeveloped, often merely translating neoliberal policies into simplistic rote exercises, such as memorizing  which type of garbage goes into which colored bin. Information about waste and recycling that is presented to children is often incorrect or of poor quality. Such activities undermine the critical and transformative capacities of environmental education, and are often reflective of the oversized influence of recycling companies in sponsoring and supplying environmental curricula for schools. In Israel, teaching is still a predominantly female profession, and the education field is one of the significant arenas for women’s public influence and advocacy on environmental issues. Therefore there is room to develop more sophisticated and interesting curricula on waste, while investing in the environmental education and leadership of teachers, who are primarily women.

There is a lack of critical social and interdisciplinary research on waste in Israel, especially inside the home. How do people purchase and dispose, how do they explain those activities and how should researchers contextualize and understand them? As far as I am aware, this kind of ethnographic research has not been carried out in Israel. Its importance to a feminist view of waste is in acknowledging and valuing women’s everyday experiences, reasoning, and work (which are characteristically overlooked in waste research). Such studies could go beyond the bin to investigate the diverse routes that discards take out the door (gift-giving, donation, selling second-hand, and so on), and how they are entwined with the respondents’ personal relationships and values, or with the infrastructures that are available where they live. Findings might show fascinating differences depending on the existence of extended second-hand networks in families and communities, and on the accessibility of recycling and sanitation services, charities, used books stores and the like (cf., de Wilde and Parry 2022; Munro 2020; Wheeler and Glucksman 2015).

Climate activists express the vision of ‘dematerializing prosperity,’ finding ways to decarbonize the economy by improving public quality of life. Similarly, feminist studies of infrastructure have called for planned environments to recognize a broader range of human needs, and although I am not aware of research relating this empirically to waste, it would be interesting to explore: Does the provision of more and better free water foundations potentially reduce reliance on plastic bottled water? Does more shade in public spaces reduce consumption of sunscreen (and energy), as outdoor spaces are more welcoming? What kinds of consumption could be lessened if the built environment met a broader range of physical and human needs, collectively, rather than leaving them to be resolved through individual consumption?

Another avenue of thought connects the problem of overconsumption to the problem of overwork, positing that the more people have to work to sustain their livelihoods, and the less free time they have for leisure or other activities, the more they are forced to consume (what sociologists have called a ‘treadmill of consumption’). For example, a person who works long hours and is stressed for time may be more likely to drive instead of walk or bike, or to purchase new items instead of investing the time to fix or maintain old ones. Recent studies in Northern Europe show that reducing work hours has the effect of cutting consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. While the relationship between work hours and carbon emissions is not fully understood, one suggestion is that when people are given the option to work less, they tend to spend that new time doing relatively low-carbon activities such as parenting or furthering their own education, and less time on their carbon-intensive daily commutes. Some researchers thus claim that reducing the work week can help us reach climate targets more quickly and can contribute significantly to reduction in global warming (Nässén and Larsson 2015; Rosnick 2013). In Israeli society, as far as I am aware, no one has made an explicit connection between the dramatic rise in household waste tonnages in the past decades and the fact that in these same decades, women’s participation in the labor market also starkly increased (Mandel and Birgier 2016). It would be interesting to investigate the connections between labor participation, work hours, and consumption in Israel from a gendered perspective. In particular, one might investigate whether shortened work hours are associated with lower rates of consumption and disposal, and how this might interrelate with gender disparities in paid work and housework. In the Israeli case, both men and women work longer hours today than in the past, but childcare and household chores remain mostly women’s responsibility (Raz-Yurovich and Marx 2019).

While present solutions to waste problems tend to over focus on individual human behavior, a feminist perspective might promote a more empowering, rights-based approach. For example, we too infrequently invoke the right to information about the origins of products, their environmental impacts, efficacy, and expected lifespans (as Patel and Moore, 2018, have written, cheapness is related both to waste and to global inequality). This information is especially important regarding the problem of household hazardous waste, and with respect to products that are marketed in a highly manipulative way, like beauty and childcare products, and those that make dubious health claims. We also need better quality information from the Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection on wastes and waste policy outcomes, which are often inaccurate or not reported at all.

Another key area is the right to sanitation, which is infrequently addressed in policy discussions. When the issue does enter the conversation, it can be unclear whether the people who lack sanitation services are seen as the victims of environmental injustice or whether they are being cast as the perpetrators. Responsibility for sanitation and hygiene has long been contested in Israeli history. Officials tend not to fully see or appreciate the gaps in service, and to spend much energy on ‘disciplining’ errant citizens to take better care of the cleanliness of their surroundings (Hirsch 2014). Ironically, the same communities who are seen as the most ‘dirty,’ ‘backwards’ and ‘wasteful’ in this discourse — poor, peripheral, Haredi and Palestinian communities — are the ones that, statistically, discard the smallest quantities of waste per capita, and often have the biggest deficits in sanitation services.[10] In the past decade, the consumption of single-use plastic in religious communities has been a particularly loaded issue in Israeli public discourse. While the matter of single-use plastic is important in itself, the national waste data show that blame is directed toward communities whose contribution to the problem is much smaller than imagined.

Another potential area of empowerment along this theme is the right to repair which is promoted by the DIY and up-cycling movements. Developing and sharing repair skills can be an empowering and creative process that is worthwhile in itself. ‘Bar Tikkun,’ for example, is an event initiated by residents of Tel Aviv which invites people to bring their broken items to be fixed by volunteers. A feminist perspective would seek to advance those practices and knowledge and make them more accessible to the public, as well as to consider how to better compensate people who have those skills, since repair and maintenance work typically have lower status and earn lower pay than design or fabrication work.

Finally, though anecdotally, it seems that women in Israel are highly active on waste issues, initiating programs and volunteering their time and efforts toward a breadth of initiatives: Collecting and redistributing unused medicines to people who need them; leading struggles to clean up asbestos pollution, and to close illegal waste dumpsites; organizing neighborhood composting programs; successfully lobbying against the use of disposable plastics in schools; using social media to share stainless steel dishware sets with neighbors (so as to lessen dependence on disposables around special events and holidays); initiating neighborhood second-hand sales and free ‘give-and-take’ (kaḥ-ten) markets; promoting zero-waste education and events, and more. These are only a few examples, and there are undoubtedly many others. I would recommend to survey women’s initiatives, to network with them and to explore how the women behind them would envision their continued growth. To this end, one might consider a focus group or invited discussion among women who are active on these issues.

Conclusion

Waste discourse and research in Israel are at a very early stage, both technically and conceptually. There is a lack of dialogue between social and natural science disciplines and a lack of engagement with waste research worldwide. Consequently, ‘expert opinion’ is often littered with stereotypical assumptions about the social context of waste, many of them quite gendered. This includes the misrecognition of women’s care work as mindless ‘consumption,’ insufficient appreciation of how disposal is embedded in broader systems and infrastructures, and unawareness of women’s chronic overwork, especially the physical sacrifice and exhaustion of women whose livelihoods depend on cleaning and caretaking (Vergès 2019). Ironically, and unjustly, the blame for waste problems is often pushed onto people who pay the highest price for those problems, and who have the least power to change them, particularly women.

As Beall (1997) and others have emphasized, while gender and waste are closely interrelated, they never operate alone, but are always mediated through other crucial social categories: class, race, religion, nationality, and others. Nor are conceptions of dirt and order, and their relationship to question of social organization and gender, uniform in every place in a given society. Deborah Bird Rose, for example, has contrasted the consensus view in Australian society that litter is ugly and unacceptable, with the perspective of Australian Aboriginals. For them, leaving food scraps on the ground is a positive act, “evidence of the reciprocity between country and people,” whereas cleaning up too much is grounds for suspicion: “the equivalent of sneaking around the country. Antisocial people who do not announce themselves, and use special techniques to avoid leaving tracks or traces, are up to no good” (Rose 2003, 62). Waste ethics also change: one generation might be encouraged to conserve and salvage certain materials, while the next generation is encouraged to ‘unlearn’ their thrifty habits to promote the growth of a particular industry, or to advance efforts for public hygiene. Therefore, in continuing to explore relationships between waste and gender, one should always aspire to a multi-variable perspective that takes diverse social considerations and standpoints into account.

Federici (2018) has promoted the idea of ‘re-commoning,’ as a means of undoing the historical appropriation of collective resources away from the public, and especially from women. In historical context, every human society has had common resources that were collectively managed and owned. As common resources have been enclosed, appropriated and privatized for capitalist production, women have had the most to lose in terms of their income, social standing and capacity to provide for themselves and their families. ‘Re-commoning’ is Federici’s term for the drive to defend common resources, to repair the fabric of communities that have been destroyed by neoliberal assaults on natural resources, to recover ways of living together based on mutual wellbeing, creativity and connection in place of extractivism and exploitation.

There are many examples of feminist re-commoning in the context of environmental and social movements. In Peru and Chile in the 1980s, women protected each other from hunger via the ollas communes (common cooking pots); poor and immigrant urban gardens in North America provide fresh food as well as social sustenance; one can point to the cooperative kitchens and childcare that Native women organized at Standing Rock in 2016; and even the Creative Commons movement for open access to knowledge (for example, the Sci Hub website created by Alexandra Elbakyan). Many women’s initiatives on waste problems in Israel express this ‘re-commoning’ spirit, and this should be supported. I would also suggest that ‘re-commoning’ might serve as a useful heuristic in differentiating possible waste/gender initiatives that genuinely expand spaces of mutuality, equality and well-being in Israeli society that are independent from commodity relationships, versus projects that may have some connection to gender but do not advance a genuine alternative to patriarchal social order. Federici notes that that examples of ‘re-commoning’ provide models for how humans will survive climate collapse and economic dislocation, and that they are becoming more widespread with every environmental and economic shock. The question is whether we can seek out and explore these capacities in the Israeli context, well ahead of the urgent crises that make them necessary.

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[1] Waste collection makes up one of the three historical ‘pillars’ of municipal sanitation (the other two are sewage treatment and the clean water supply).

[2] In many societies the female body is considered naturally dirty or dangerous, to be ‘corrected’ somehow before it is accepted into the community, for example by genital mutilation or rites of purification surrounding menstruation or childbirth.

[3] E.g., following the 1997 Commission on the Status of Women and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, which called for incorporating a gender-conscious analysis in environmental matters of sustainable development.

[4] Dolores Hayden, for example, a feminist historian of American urban architecture, decried the dearth of consideration for women’s safety, well-being, and care work in public spaces, to the detriment of women’s ability to move in and enjoy being outside: “The ultimate proof of maturity is the ability to nurture and protect human life, to develop public safety, public mobility, public amenities… Commonsense improvements in urban design can be linked to larger ideas about nurturing to help end the split between private life and public life” (Hayden 1985, 212).

[5] Ironically, time analyses comparing middle class women’s housework at the beginning and end of the twentieth century, show that these invisible forms of work — chauffeuring, shopping, child care, being an ‘educated’ consumer on health and other topics, even therapy — take up as much time, and sometimes even more than domestic activities in the past (Cowan 1983, 1996; cf., Illich 1980).

[6] There are laws requiring the removal and proper disposal of plastic sheets from farmland (Removal of Plastic Sheets, 5753 – 1993), the safe disposal of commercial used oil (Used Oil, 5753 – 1993) and an EPR law covering used tires (Disposal and Recycling of Tires Law, 5767 – 2007).

[7] These markets have serious health and environmental impacts on local communities, for example due to the open burning and processing of toxic materials. At the same time, in some ways informal systems can be highly flexible and efficient (Davis and Garb 2019). Advocates for these communities seek to improve the conditions and environmental impacts of the industry and to attain recognition and support for its potential contribution, rather than combating the phenomenon, which would crush a main source of livelihood for these communities.

[8] This is true in many countries, and more generally in the history of sanitation — where supplying clean water and removing sewage take up primary attention, and issues of trash collection come last (Melosi 2008).

[9] I.e., recycling or otherwise treating waste so as to reduce the proportion that would otherwise go straight to landfill.

[10] This may seem surprising to Israelis, who are used to hearing that Haredi families, for example, are wastrels who have too many children and use disposable plastic products with nary a thought for the future of the planet. Disposable plates and cutlery actually make up a negligible percentage of the household waste stream, and although the claim has not been examined directly, the most recent comparative waste data, from the 2013 National Waste Survey, contradicts the view that Haredi and Palestinian communities are especially wasteful. For example, Beitar Illit, a Haredi town, discards 1.07 kilos of household waste per resident per day — far below the national average of 1.9 kilos — of which about 252 grams are plastic. In comparison, residents of Ramat Hasharon, a mostly secular Jewish town, discard 2.19 kilos of waste per day, of which 400 grams are plastic; and Emeq Hefer residents discard 1.9 kilos per day, of which 412 grams are plastic. Regarding the stereotype that Palestinians produce more waste, again, the last National Waste Survey indicates that Palestinian towns actually discard much less waste than the national average, for example: Basmat Tab’un – 1 kilo, Rahat – 1.07 kilos, Kafr Qasim – 1.2 kilos. These data are only indicative, however, and should be taken with a grain of salt; the National Survey did not examine every town in Israel and figures on waste per capita might be suspect, since they depend on self-reporting by municipalities.