ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 4-17-87):PETER JENNINGS: No one, we know, is particularly fond of taking out the garbage; how about the prospect of not being able to get rid of it at all?
NARRATION: In 1986, a once successful Alabama builder named Lowell Harrelson was headed for bankruptcy, when he heard about an opportunity 1,200 miles away in Islip, New York. Islips landfill was nearly full, and town officials were desperately looking for a new way to get rid of their trash.
LOWELL HARRELSON: They seemed like they were willing to cooperate, and we agreed to make a test run one trial run to see if my grand idea was really workable.
NARRATION: Harrelsons grand idea was simple: to ship Islips garbage by barge to landfills in the south. But he needed help from this man: Tommy Gesuale, owner of the only private dock in New York City licensed to barge garbage.
TOMMY GESUALE: They had no one who knew anything about barging in garbage, so they come to me, and asked me, could I barge garbage for them?
NARRATION: Gesuale also lined up investors. Chief among them, the Mafia captain Salvatore Avellino. With $300,000 backing his plan, Harrelson just needed a couple of boats.
LOWELL HARRELSON: I had friends in the Louisiana in the maritime business, contacted them, and was able to lease me a tugboat with a big barge: the Mobro.
NARRATION: The Mobro left port in March of 1987, just after Harrelson found a landfill in North Carolina that seemed willing to accept its cargo. Like a magnet for refuse, the barge by now had collected over six million pounds of trash, from all over Long Island and New York City.
TOMMY GESUALE: Everybodys garbage everybody had a problem getting rid of their garbage. And we were the best game, I guess, at the time.
LOWELL HARRELSON: At that point in time, everything looked so good. It was the start of something that I had great hopes for.
NARRATION: Harrelson predicted profits for disposing of the Mobros load in the first place, and eventually, for generating electricity from the methane gas created as the garbage decomposed.
LOWELL HARRELSON: It was an idea that I had read about a lot of experts said its a coming thing so I just arbitrarily, on my own, decided to give it a whirl.
NARRATION: But on April Fools Day, shortly after the barge docked in North Carolina, a local TV news reporter was at the scene, and sparked an outcry.
TOMMY GESUALE: The first call we got was, youre shipping New York Citys rats down to us, and I said no. First, there was no rats on it.
LOWELL HARRELSON: No one said a barge load of waste, it was a barge load of New York waste!
NARRATION: As Gesuale remembers it, the pivotal moment came when a state environmental official spotted a bedpan on the barge.
TOMMY GESUALE: And they claimed, because of the bedpan, that the barge had hospital waste, so we were told to get it out of there.
NARRATION: The barge then headed for a landfill in Louisiana. But when it got there, state officials again barred it from unloading.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 4-17-87):PAUL MILLER (DEPT ENVIRONMENTAL CONTROL): There could be infectious waste from hospitals, and there could be hazardous waste.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS):TOM BROKAW: A homeless garbage barge
NARRATION: Thats when the story exploded.
ARCHIVAL:REPORTER: Dripping brown ooze of possibly infectious material.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS)DENNIS MURPHY: The governor of Louisiana threatened to send out the National Guard if the barge tied up there.
ARCHIVAL:REPORTER: The vagabond barge has become an international issue.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS):DAN RATHER: The most watched load of garbage in the memory of man.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS):CONNIE CHUNG: Six ports have already refused the refuse.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS):DENNIS MURPHY: The barge has been chased away by the warplanes of two nations, and now its anchored here: five miles off the coast of Key West, Florida, still loaded with tons of garbage, still unwanted.
LOWELL HARRELSON: It was like a brush fire, you know, it was fun to belittle this barge full of garbage.
ARCHIVAL:JOHNNY CARSON: Take your barge up into the Gulf of Persia, and there is Iran. Dump it right there.
NARRATION: Then, in early May, a team from the EPA inspected the barge in Florida, and reported finding trash from hospitals, but nothing that was truly hazardous. So the Mobro headed back to what seemed like its last, best chance: New York.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS):PETER JENNINGS: From here, to there, and back again.
NARRATION: But when it reached New York Harbor, two court orders blocked it from unloading.
BRENDAN SEXTON (FORMER COMMISSIONER OF SANITATION, NEW YORK CITY): Nobody in an elected position could afford to take this tainted, mythologically frightening, load of who-knew-what into their community.
ARCHIVAL (ABC7):CLAIRE SCHULMAN (QUEENS BOROUGH PRESIDENT): We dont know what kind of tropical vermin is in that garbage. We dont know, uh its been sitting in the sun for six weeks.
NARRATION: Beyond the health worries, the media and experts often portrayed the Mobro as a symbol of a growing national problem: that landfill space was becoming scarce, and we were fast approaching a point of crisis.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 5-11-87:RICHARD THRELKELD: Weve about run out of places to throw away our throwaways.
ARCHIVAL:REPORTER: By 1990, according to one federal survey, at least 27 states will be critically short of space to dump garbage.
ARCHIVAL (WWOR-TV):MAN: This meeting is recessed!REPORTER: When the county board in Sussex last month proposed opening a new garbage collection site, the residents were outraged, and showed it.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 5-11-87):PETER JENNINGS: We are running out of places to dump
NARRATION: But then a place to dump the Mobros load appeared, in of all places, Islip the same Long Island town that had originally banished the trash.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, WORLD NEWS TONIGHT, 5-17-87):FRANK JONES (ISLIP TOWN SUPERVISOR): Well take it, because we think for a one time situation we should do it and get it behind us.
NARRATION: But before Islip could take the Mobros load, a judge ordered that it all be burned in a Brooklyn incinerator, and thats what happened over five months after the barge left port.
ARCHIVAL:REPORTER: Harrelson has become the butt of jokes and ridicule, and today, in frustration, he gave up.
LOWELL HARRELSON: The only thing I could do is get out of the way, and let it go back to Brooklyn, New York, to the incinerator and die its death. Be done with it.
BRENDAN SEXTON: In the end, when we unloaded the barge, it was essentially scrap paper: newspaper, cardboard. I found this pink plastic yo-yo, and that wound up in the newspaper. It made clear how overblown everybodys fear had gotten.
NARRATION: It also became clear over time, that the fears about declining landfill space were overblown, too. What really set off all the panic were new regulations that had forced thousands of small, polluting garbage dumps to close.
ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ (FORMER SENIOR SCIENTIST, NATIONAL RESOURCE DEFENSE COUNCIL): We were saying, oh my god! We went from 10,000 to 5,000, from 5,000 to 2,500 landfills: theyre disappearing!” So it really did seem like a crisis, but it wasnt. Because as these smaller open dumps were appropriately closing for environmental reasons, larger, regional landfills existed and were being built.
NARRATION: But the attention given to garbage paid off on another front. A month before the trash was burned, Greenpeace activists hung a banner: next timetry recycling. Until the mid-80s, the amount Americans had recycled had climbed slowly. Then, with rising public awareness in part because of the Mobro it shot upward, more than tripling in the years since.
BRENDAN SEXTON: I think that the whole experience was extremely useful in getting people to say, Oh, I actually have to worry about what happens to the trash after I put it out the back door? You know, I mean, somebodys gonna do something with it, or fail to do something with it?
NARRATION: Over time, as Americans recycled more of their waste about 68 million tons today much of that recycling was exported to China for processing. But that changed in 2018.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 5-30-18):NEWS REPORT: China, the worlds largest buyer of these goods, is making drastic changes to what it will accept.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-25-18):NEWS REPORT: Its a decision thats creating new problems here at home.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-25-19):NEWS REPORT: When material like this, like all this paper, cant get recycled fast enough, it can end up going to a landfill instead.
NARRATION: Facing a volatile global market, communities are grappling with how to handle the new realities of recycling.
ARCHIVAL (WFTV Channel 9, 1-10-19):NEWS REPORT: Say goodbye to recycling if you live in the city of Deltona. With rising costs of recycling, the city decided to suspend its recycling program.
NARRATION: Some experts say they hope this shake up in the recycling business, serves as a wake up call about Americas consumption habits just like the Mobro did.
ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Our waste is going to wind up someplace. Look at what you use. Theres a lot of opportunity to reduce the amount of waste that we produce at the beginning.
NARRATION: A growing movement aims to do just that.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 2-3-19):NEWS REPORT: Spend the day with Katherine Kellogg and youll see a shopping spree free of waste.
NARRATION: Setting its sights beyond recycling, it hopes to fundamentally change how Americans think about waste.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 1-25-13):NEWS REPORT: The move toward zero waste is catching on.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 2-3-19):NEWS REPORT: The movement is not new, but has gained momentum through social media and images like this – its two years worth of trash
CELESTE: Cities like San Francisco are trying to send as little waste to landfills as possible. Other cities have taken aim at plastic straws, or banned styrofoam.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 1-1-19):MAYOR DE BLASIO: We definitely say no to styrofoam!
NARRATION: As for Lowell Harrelson, the Mobro debacle nearly ruined him. And in 2001 his reputation took another hit when he was sentenced to five months in prison, for evading taxes and lying to a grand jury. But in hindsight, Harrelsons plan to make electricity from garbage looks downright visionary.
ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: I think that he was actually trying to develop a model that could be replicated; a commercial model that was, frankly, I think, ahead of its time.
NARRATION: Today, over 600 landfill gas projects generate energy nationwide. In 2018, more than 16 billion kilowatt hours of electricity were produced.
LOWELL HARRELSON: Oh, I do sometimes read about the scale of methane usage today, and my first reaction is not one of remorse I wish I could have been in it, obviously but it, my reaction is more like, Wow, I really underestimated that opportunity. It was far greater than I had pictured it to be at the time.
NARRATION: At age 85, Harrelsons ambition shows no signs of fading. He plans to move to Bolivia, where he hopes to mine and ship iron ore on barges like this one, 15 times larger than the one he made famous in 1987.
LOWELL HARRELSON: Hopefully I wont have another Mobro experience.