A Barge Full of Garbage Helped to Fuel a Recycling Movement

In the 1980s, rising public awareness about waste was fueled by a bizarre news story about a meandering New York City garbage barge.

Dan Rather dubbed it “the most watched load of garbage in the memory of Man.” Johnny Carson joked about it in his nightly comedy routine. It grabbed headlines around the world. But for all the attention, Americans have never heard the full story of the Mobro garbage barge (a.k.a., “the gar-barge,” “the Flying Dutchman of Trash,” “the barge to nowhere,” “the floating hot potato.”) If you weren’t around in 1987 – or just need a reminder – the Mobro carried six million pounds of New York garbage, got turned away from its destination in North Carolina, and spent the next five months adrift – rejected by six states and three foreign countries.

The pundits of the day portrayed the Mobro as a symbol of our nation’s growing garbage crisis, stoked by fears of declining landfill space. But the real reason the Mobro stayed at sea so long had more to do with the growing pains of the garbage industry, new environmental laws, and a textbook public freak-out.

It’s a classic tale with a twist: a get-rich-quick scheme that changed the way Americans take out the trash.

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For teachers
  • Producer: Harry W. Hanbury
  • Editor: Ben Howard
  • Reporter: Sarah Weiser

For Educators


Through this surprising and engaging 12-minute video about a doomed trash barge named Mobro, students are introduced to solid waste disposal and waste management strategies, and will examine their lunchroom garbage and how it decays. They will make proposals for alternative methods of disposing of waste.

Students will learn concepts of the properties of matter, the particle nature of matter and the conservation of matter. This lesson strengthens the science and engineering practices of asking questions, planning investigations, developing models, designing solutions and arguing from evidence. Students will work with the crosscutting concepts of patterns, cause and effect and energy and matter.

Some ideas in this lesson were inspired by the Garbage Unit by NYU SAIL Research Lab.

Background reading

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.

Lesson Plan 1: What Should Happen to My Garbage?

Students will learn the story behind the recycling movement, explore different waste management strategies, and examine their own lunchroom garbage.


Students will be able to:

  • Identify the properties of materials.
  • Generate and identify investigable and researchable questions.
  • Develop models to explain phenomena.
  • Design and carry out investigations on changes in the properties of materials.
  • Develop explanations and design solutions based on evidence.
  • Develop and apply the concepts that matter is made of particles and that the amount of matter remains constant as it undergoes changes.
  • Use geospatial technologies to examine patterns spatial data and make decisions based on this data.
Essential questions
  • What is in our garbage?
  • What happens to our garbage?
  • What happens to the garbage in a landfill or an incinerator? What are the consequences?
  • What actions can be taken to reduce the impact of our garbage?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.7:Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.9:Synthesize information from a range of sources (e.g., texts, experiments, simulations) into a coherent understanding of a process, phenomenon, or concept, resolving conflicting information when possible.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Geo.1.9-12.Use geospatial and related technologies to create maps to display and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics.
    • D2.Geo.3.9-12.Use geographic data to analyze variations in the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics at multiple scales.
    • D2.Geo.4.9-12.Analyze relationships and interactions within and between human and physical systems to explain reciprocal influences that occur among them.
  • Next Generation Science Standards
    • 5-PS 1-3:Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.
    • 5-PS 1-1:Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to see.
    • MS-ESS3-4.Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems
  • AP Environmental Science
    • Unit 8: Aquatic & Terrestrial Pollution
    • Topic 8.9: Solid Waste Disposal
      • STB-3.K.1: Solid waste is any discarded material that is not a liquid or a gas. It is generated in domestic, industrial, business, and agricultural sectors.
      • STB-3.K.2: Solid waste is often disposed of in landfills. Landfills can contaminate groundwater and release harmful gasses.
    • Topic 8.10: Waste Reduction Methods
      • STB-3.M.1: Recycling is a process by which certain solid waste materials are processed and converted into new products.
      • STB-3.M.2: Recycling is one way to reduce the current global demands on minerals, but this process is energy intensive and can be costly.