For a few weeks there, New York City was thinking earnestly about its trash.
It was the spring of 1987, and a barge called the Mobro 4000 was carrying over 3,000 tons of it—a load that, for various reasons, North Carolina didn't want to take. Thus began one of the biggest garbage sagas in modern history, a picaresque journey of a small boat overflowing with stuff no one wanted, a flotilla of waste, a trashier version of the Flying Dutchman, that ghost ship doomed to never make port.
Suspected of carrying all sorts of hazardous materials, the barge, which set sail from New York City on March 22, 1987, was rejected by over a dozen places. It was, according to one NBC reporter, "chased away by the warplanes of two nations." It was called into service by Johnny Carson, who suggested the Mobro be re-routed to Iran. Dan Rather called it "the most watched load of garbage in the memory of man."
We don't tend to want garbage (that's why it's garbage) but it's more complicated than that. The idea that one man's garbage is another man's treasure animates the booming waste industry, from the professional operations that cart away New York's trash to the mom and pop computer chop shops in places like Guiyu and Accra. Of course most of those businesses are toxic as hell. Some of them have been and may long be convenient fronts for organized crime.
But the redemptive value of trash—its post-recycled worth, its potential use as an energy source—was not exactly on the minds of the angry citizens and lawmakers who stared down the Mobro as it drifted, plodded its way, up and down the Eastern Seaboard that spring and summer, looking for a home.
Because it carried what was to many essentially a pile of nothing, the "gar-barge" was, as it was called, became a magnet for symbols. As it trawled down the coast, the barge was, variously, a clarion call for recycling (before an inevitable backlash), a toxic ticking time-bomb, a signal of a country gone to waste, or the punchline of a joke, in that Barthesque, sad funny way. That's all captured quite well in the first installment of Retro Report, a new documentary series in collaboration with the New York Times.
The idea to send the trash to North Carolina was nothing new. In the preceding years, space in local landfills had become scarce, thanks in part to new environmental policies. When the Mobro debacle began, policy makers and the media warned that the U.S. was running out of room for its trash. In actuality, there were new larger landfills that were located, in theory at least, in less populated places. Getting the trash there required not trucks but barges or trains, which is how much of New York's trash gets to landfills in other states today. (Before and after the Mobro incident, landfills in North Carolina accepted trash from New York.)
The fear was that it was carrying hazardous medical waste. Upon later dissection by garbage men, it was made mostly by trash, in the technical sense of the word: yo-yos and refrigerators and newspapers and stuff like that.
The plan for the Mobro's trash was actually an enlightened one. The stinkiest thing about the waste was the guy who owned it. Salvatore Avellino, reputed mob boss of Long Island’s trash-hauling business, took ownership of excess trash at the landfill in Islip for $86 a ton. (Staten Island's landfills were set to close by 1990, as the high water table meant that leaking chemicals threatened the water supply.)
Avellino's plan was to ship it to Louisiana, bury it in a landfill there for $5 a ton, and, thanks to relatively new technology, capture the methane generated by the trash and split the profits with farmers and local officials. (Today, methane captured at New York's biggest retired landfill generates $12 million in revenue a year; across the country, some 600 landfill gas projects create 15 billion KwH of electricity a year.)
But Avellino's colleague, Lowell Harrelson, the owner of the barge, hadn't secured the proper agreements. After he hastily arranged for a landfill in Morehead, North Carolina to take it, state regulators there grew nervous. A photograph of the barge showed a bed pan; remembering that organized crime members had previously hidden hazardous waste inside normal-looking trash, some worried that the boat contained toxic waste.
A media frenzy began, and even though many places had extra capacity for trash shipments, no community was willing to take it. The Mobro traveled to the Gulf of Mexico in search of a friendly port; Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, New Jersey, the Bahamas, Mexico and Belize all refused it. After two months at sea, on June 17, the Mobro returned to Brooklyn, where it sat in a legal limbo.
"By that time, we had so much bad publicity; they were saying Jimmy Hoffa was buried in the barge, and it was carrying nuclear waste, and you-name-it, so they didn't want it. They wanted us to get out," Duffy St. Pierre, the captain of the Mobro's tugboat, remembered.
The Coast Guard vessel Cape Fox brings EPA and DEC personnel to the Mobro 4000 / J. Conover
By then, Avellino's company had declared bankruptcy, effectively abandoning the trash. Five months after it set sail, the barge's cargo was incinerated in Brooklyn and buried back at the landfill where it had originated, in Islip. The pile of ash, one of the last to be buried on Long Island, was a distant ancestor of another nearby landfill, the one at Flushing Meadows that likely inspired the "Valley of Ashes" in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, that symbol of darkness licking at the fancy edges and signaling the decline of Gatsby's West Egg.
“This is the valley of ashes, a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the form of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.”
That landfill would become an early example of remediation, thanks to Robert Moses, who, as New York's Parks Commissioner, designated it as the site of the 1939 World's Fair. Wrote the Times then: "The ash heaps towered as high as 90 feet above the earth before the city picked the Flushing park meadows as the site for the fair. The place was just a swampy dump heap then, with the neighbors complaining of dog-sized rats and mosquitos with pneumatic drill stingers."
Ash residue from incineration of the waste is unloaded for burial in the Blydenburge Landfill in Islip / S. Farkas
Fifty years later, America's modern relationship with waste was, in all sorts of hard-to-calculate ways, defined by the Mobro. At least, the ship's saga helped to kickstart a municipal recycling movement. Today, the ongoing debate over recycling often runs into questions about cost, which are tricky questions because the costs vary from material to material.
According to 2010 data by the EPA, tossed auto batteries are most likely to actually get recycled, at a rate of 96 percent; paper was the next most popular recycled material, recovered at a rate of about 72 percent. Plastic was the material least likely to be melted and turned into other things: PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles and jars had a recycling rate of 29.2 percent, white translucent bottles a rate of 27.5 percent.
New Yorkers are notoriously lazy recyclers, only diverting about 15 percent of their waste from landfills (nationwide, it's about 34 percent). But new Bloomberg-blessed programs that address hard plastics and electronics, for instance, are helping to raise that rate, saving the city an additional $30 million a year, according to its new "recycling czar" Ron Gonen. The goal is to bring up that rate to 30 percent by 2017, saving the city $60 million annually. Nationally, we're at a record high: of the 250 million tons of trash thrown out of homes in 2010, 85 million was diverted from landfills, which, says the EPA, is comparable to removing the emissions of 33 million passenger cars.
But the Mobro's tale is also the sort of thing we might prefer to relegate to the big waste heap of history. There's plenty. Today, twenty six years after that barge carrying 3000 tons of garbage traveled 6000 miles looking for a home, New York City sends 23000 tons of garbage out of the city on a daily basis. That's seven Mobros every day. The risk of forgetting the barge's saga is the same risk that comes with shipping our trash to far flung places: if we don't have to deal with it, we might not be inclined to reduce it.
Meanwhile, the chances that other places won't want to take our trash are shrinking, as it becomes easier to look at trash like any other commodity. In Norway, for instance, garbage has become quite an important energy source, to the point that Oslo doesn't have quite enough. Now the city is hoping to get ahold of some of America's trash too.