Recycling has become such a fact of American life that it’s hard to believe that the movement began more than 30 years ago, sparked by a barge full of garbage that couldn’t find a place to land.
In 1987, with its landfill had reached capacity, the Long Island town of Islip was desperate for someone to cart away its trash.
An Alabama builder named Lowell Harrison heard that call, and came up with a novel plan to ship the town’s garbage by barge to open landfills in the South. The barge, named the Mobro, left Islip in March 1987 loaded with some 6 million pounds of garbage and headed for a landfill in North Carolina that was willing to accept the load.
But when the barge arrived in North Carolina, state environmental officials, worried that it contained infectious waste from New York hospitals, barred the crew from unloading.
Undeterred, the Mobro’s captain sailed on to Louisiana and another landfill, only to be stopped again by worried state officials. The voyage quickly became a media sensation, tracked on the evening news and by late-night talk shows.
The Mobro went on to spend five months at sea before its captain was forced to return to New York, where the garbage was eventually burned.
The breathless media coverage of the Mobro’s journey raised public awareness about waste disposal. But the message that really struck home could be seen on a banner that Greenpeace activists unfurled on the garbage-filled barge: “NEXT TIME TRY RECYCLING.”
The message was heard. Recycling took off, tripling in volume throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Today, some 68 million tons of trash are recycled in the U.S. each year.