Mobro 4000: How One Weird Odyssey of Trash Changed the World

Mobro 4000: How One Weird Odyssey of Trash Changed the World

Perhaps it was a slow week in the news, or perhaps the giant barge called the Mobro 4000 carrying 3,168 tons of garbage from Islip, New York, in 1987 really was a shocking sight. Either way, it became a media sensation as it cruised down the Eastern Seaboard, piled high with all sorts of waste—including tires, cardboard boxes, medical waste, plastic bottles, and twisted scrap metal—and looking for a place to land.

But as it floated from New York all the way down to North Carolina, Alabama, Texas, Mexico, Belize, and even the Bahamas, it seemed no one was willing to accept the waste for disposal. But how did this happen? How did a giant barge loaded with trash become a marauder of the sea—a smelly, fly-infested reject of society?

Background

The 112-day odyssey of trash, which covered over 5,000 nautical miles and cost almost $1 million, began when businessman Lowell Harrelson made a deal to collect the trash from Long Island’s south shore. He chartered the Mobro, had the garbage compacted and baled, and loaded it onto the boat, intending to sail it down to North Carolina, where it would be used in a gas conversion project. Harrelson’s idea was to find a small, controlled site to landfill the garbage and then collect the methane that would be emitted as the garbage decomposed. The methane could then be used to produce electricity. He found six North Carolina farmers with fallow land who were interested in participating in his scheme.

However, when the Mobro tried to enter the harbor at Morehead City, North Carolina, local officials became immediately concerned about the existence of potentially hazardous and dangerous materials aboard. They refused to let the barge offload the trash, and the crew was forced to hang around for 12 days. Disgruntled residents pelted them with rotting eggs.

The battle of the barge had begun, and the Mobro was forced out of port, still packed to the gills with garbage. It made its way toward Louisiana. Around this time, the media began to take note of the floating pariah, plastering its image all over the newspapers and causing a general uproar.

Resolution

What ensued was one rejection after the next, from the Mexican Navy to the authorities in Belize. The so-called “Gar-Barge” was eventually forced to return to New York, where yet another legal battle erupted. Upon arrival, it was met with a temporary restraining order and considerable public outrage; however, the saga had been going on for almost half a year by this point, and a resolution needed to be found.

Once an agreement was struck between Harrelson, the town of Islip, the Department of Sanitation, and the Department of Environmental Conservation, the mountain of mess—now deemed non-hazardous—was finally unloaded and burned at an incinerator in Brooklyn. The 400 tons of ash produced were then trucked by private carrier back to their original point of origin in Islip and buried, once and for all.

Effect on Society

The voyage of the Mobro 4000 was front page news for weeks and managed to generate considerable public debate that helped to increase eco-consciousness in the U.S. The disquieting image of the garbage-packed flotilla became a national symbol of the country’s growing issues around solid waste management and disposal. The story lingered in the public conscious, leading many to conclude that the country’s garbage situation had become dramatically out of control and something needed to be done. The status quo of mindlessly producing trash and dumping it out of site wasn’t going to fly anymore, at least not in the minds of those concerned about the future of the environment. In the next few years after the incident, the majority of U.S. states passed laws mandating some form of municipal recycling

The Mobro triggered a call to action in the waste management industry and the environmental movement; the barge’s journey was widely cited by environmental activist groups looking to highlight their growing concerns about waste. Nearly 3,000 municipal landfills had closed between 1982 and 1987, and many more were scheduled for closure in the next few years. Alternatives seemed limited, and two main paths had become painfully clear—people could either reduce the amount of trash they generated, or increase the amount they recycled.

Now, 30 years after the resolution, recycling and waste conversion programs are considerably more widespread and productive, expanding more and more each year. Although pitiful and poignant, the journey of the Mobro 4000 was a wake-up call for the world, galvanizing people to think more critically about what they mindlessly throw away.

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