Cultural Attitudes toward Trash

I didn’t think about it until returning to America, but there’s a huge difference between how the Israeli and American cultures handle garbage.

I was thinking about this recently because in Portland (as well as in some of the surrounding towns), all trash has to be put out in official trash bags that cost about $2 each. It adds up fast if you’re wasteful. It’s partly a tax and partly a method of encouraging people to reduce their trash. I have to admit it works. So I got to thinking about differences in how Israel and America handle trash removal.

In most places in America, there are strict rules about how you put out trash. You might not pay by the bag like in Portland, but the point is that you have to follow the rules or you risk a fine. While curbside trash pickup may be a public service, the trash itself is your private property until the moment the truck picks it up.

In contrast, trash in Israel is pretty much a free-for-all. There are big dumpsters right out on the sidewalk, one for about every two apartment buildings, and you can put as much as you like in them. (Recycling bins are available but not convenient.) Or next to them. Trash, according to the Israeli definition, consists of anything that you have put in public areas for the public services to clean up.

Who owns the trash (the individual or the public sector) while it is in limbo sounds like a small difference, but it has big implications. First, like anything in the public sector, trash can easily get covered by the Somebody Else’s Problem invisibility shield. In a nice neighborhood it’s usually okay because people make an effort to put trash where it belongs and keep the streets clean (except for dog poop). Our neighborhood in Haifa was relatively litter-free…only relatively. On the other hand, Israelis are notorious for leaving public parks littered with trash after they leave, and I mean totally disgusting–I have personally witnessed this several times. Who cares–it’s Somebody Else’s Problem and you don’t have to look at it in the meantime because you’re leaving the park.

Another implication is that the public sector just doesn’t work very well. If you’ve ever tried to call a public office in Israel to prepare for a visit, you know that the odds are no better than 50-50 that you will get a useful answer that actually saves you a trip or allows you to conduct your business more efficiently. (I once heard a man complain to the municipality, very calmly, that he had followed the instructions on the form exactly and brought all the documents it said he would need. The clerk’s response was, “It’s impossible to list everything you need on the form!” Really, I am not exaggerating.) Chances are also 50-50 that you will get someone who actually cares about your problem.

The same goes for trash pickup. The people who work in public services in Israel don’t care if people over-stuff a full dumpster, letting cats in and smells out, instead of walking 50 meters to one that isn’t full. Why would they care? It’s not their problem if you don’t like it, and it’s certainly not your problem because it’s a public street. All you can do is ignore it and wait for the next trash pickup, which mercifully is never more than a few days away, and be grateful you don’t live in a part of town where people really don’t care and will just leave their trash all over the place instead of hanging it neatly off the edge of the full dumpster.

Jeff and I sometimes bemoan the tyranny of nit-picky rules in America (e.g. no alcohol purchases on Sunday mornings), but I think rules about trash are probably a good thing. Enforcing those rules means that you have to have someone who owns the trash. It doesn’t stop people from littering when nobody is looking, but it helps create a culture where people think of trash as their responsibility rather than someone else’s problem.


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