Israel’s new government is about to cancel two consumer taxes the previous government has put in place: a tax on disposable plastic tableware and a tax on sugary drinks (which also go out onto supermarket shelves in plastic bottles). Many people see this recent move as pandering to the Israeli ultra-Orthodox population and have a lot of things to say about those nutty religious fanatics who can’t bother to wash their dishes.
I’ve often said that large families have a huge environmentally friendly potential. Modest lifestyles, a limited amount of car and airplane travel, and lots of using hand-me-downs make religious families with many kids a lot less wasteful than many families with just one or two kids who burn up gas like there’s no tomorrow and order huge boxfuls of cheap stuff from Shein that’s going to end up in the landfill after a couple of wears.
Basically, I believe there are two elements that keep most large families in Israel from becoming truly environmentally friendly: time and brain-space.
I know what it’s like when you have a bunch of kids come indoors from playing, look into the sink, and discover it’s still full of last night’s dishes. Then you desperately reach for the stack of disposable plates and cups on the upper shelf, promising yourself you won’t procrastinate with dishwashing next time (or, in my case in the past, telling yourself you’ll have to wash those dishes the moment the running water supply resumes!)
Sidenote: As far as I know, most Haredi families in Israel don’t use a dishwasher. One reason is Jewish dietary restrictions: most strictly observant families would use the dishwasher either for meat or for dairy dishes, which would still leave them with huge amounts of kitchenware to wash by hand. Another reason is that the initial investment would seem daunting to many large families on a shoestring budget. And, finally, a dishwasher takes up space, and many Haredi families live in cramped apartments with tiny kitchens.
Another thing is brain-space or, if you prefer, lack of awareness. Ultra-Orthodox schools and society rarely emphasize environmental studies (although I definitely believe they should). Some even disparagingly call caring about the environment “the secular religion” and go on a tangent, saying that people “worship” the environment instead of caring about the “really important things”, like helping people in need. Of course, it’s a false narrative that often covers up one simple truth: when you have five kids under six, it’s hard to care about anything but day-to-day survival. You do what you need to do to keep your head above the water, even if it creates bigger landfills – which is ultimately one reason I chose not to cloth-diaper. I do try to improve and make more environmentally friendly choices, though.
A friend who lived in the U.S. for a few years told me that in her opinion, the Israeli reliance on disposables is unprecedented in the developed world. I think it’s a shame, especially since, in my opinion, disposables don’t really save as much work as people think.
First, you need to remember to buy them, and then you panic if you don’t. And sometimes you end up running out to the store just because you’ve run out of plastic dishes and you haven’t geared up with a “real” dish set for the guests that just arrived at your doorstep.
Also, since plastic kitchenware (especially the cheap kind most Haredi families use) tips over, tears, and breaks easily, it will create more spills and messes when children use it. And finally, disposables clog up your garbage can so you need to empty it more often.
Plus disposable kitchenware is just plain yucky. Food both looks and feels so much nicer when served in glass or crockery.
The second tax that is now being revoked involves sugary drinks. My feelings about this one are more mixed. On the one hand, I don’t believe in a condescending, paternalistic attitude that tries to teach people what’s good for them by punishing unhealthy food choices through their wallet. I also have great faith in a free market. My suggestion is that, instead of revoking the tax, it’s time to roll it to the bottled drink manufacturers who destroy public health with their sugar-loaded offerings.
Finally, we should all remember that the consumer’s power is in our hands. Whatever taxes the government imposes or cancels, we can all choose to make an informed decision about what we eat, drink, or use in our kitchens. We can all take responsibility for our food and consumption habits and work towards making our own private household healthier and more environmentally friendly.