Garbage Barge Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts

When plans to produce methane from trash in North Carolina were blocked, the garbage barge Mobro cruised the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in an unsuccessful search for a place to unload.

Summary of Event

In 1986, the sanitary landfills on Long Island, New York, were approaching maximum capacity, and state regulations that limited the future use of these facilities were put in place. This caused the town board of the Long Island town of Islip, led by town supervisor Frank Jones, to vote in November, 1986, to stop accepting commercial waste at the town’s Blydenburgh landfill Blydenburgh landfill in Hauppauge, New York. Islip was in the process of building a waste incinerator that was scheduled to open in 1988. Meanwhile, the town’s waste was hauled by truck to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and upstate New York at a cost of $80 per ton, double the cost of dumping the waste at Blydenburgh. Soon, the out-of-state landfills stopped accepting trash from Islip. Mobro (garbage barge)
Garbage industry
[kw]Garbage Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts (Mar.-May, 1987)
[kw]Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Garbage (Mar.-May, 1987)
[kw]Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Garbage Barge (Mar.-May, 1987)
[kw]Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Garbage Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. (Mar.-May, 1987)
[kw]Gulf Coasts, Garbage Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and (Mar.-May, 1987)
Mobro (garbage barge)
Garbage industry
[g]North America;Mar.-May, 1987: Garbage Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts[06410]
[g]United States;Mar.-May, 1987: Garbage Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts[06410]
[c]Environmental issues;Mar.-May, 1987: Garbage Barge Mobro Cruises U.S. Atlantic and Gulf Coasts[06410]
Harrelson, Lowell
Jones, Frank
St. Pierre, Duffy
Reid, Stephen
Edwards, Edwin
Martinez, Robert
Reyes Luján, Sergio

Lowell Harrelson was a building contractor in Bay Minette, Alabama, where the building business was very slow. For years, Harrelson had considered the idea of making money from garbage and trash by using it to produce methane, which could be sold as fuel. Harrelson formed the company National Waste Contractors, Incorporated, National Waste Contractors, Incorporated to carry out his plan. National Waste Contractors arranged for Islip’s trash to be hauled by truck to Riverview Avenue Enterprises Riverview Avenue Enterprises in Long Island City, a section of Queens, New York. Riverview’s job was to compress the trash into cubic-yard bales weighing about one ton each and to load those bales on the barge Mobro. A total of 3,168 tons of trash was loaded aboard the barge, which was owned by Harvey Gulf International Marine, Incorporated.

On March 22, 1987, the 96-foot tugboat Break of Dawn began to tow the Mobro to Morehead City, North Carolina. The tug’s crew included Captain Duffy St. Pierre, first mate David Soto, a deckhand, and an engineer. This crew had worked together on the Break of Dawn for more than four years.

National Waste Contractors had arranged with six farmers in Jones County, North Carolina, to use their fallow land for methane production. When authorities in North Carolina learned of the plan, however, Stephen Reid of the state’s Solid and Hazardous Waste Management Bureau told St. Pierre to “get the boat out of North Carolina waters.” With the cost of using the tug and the barge running nearly $6,000 per day, Harrelson ordered St. Pierre to proceed to Venice, Louisiana, in the Mississippi River delta south of New Orleans. Inspectors from the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality found that the trash was mostly paper but that it also contained syringes, bedpans, and other hospital waste that could pose a health hazard. Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards jokingly said that he would station the National Guard along the river levees to stop the barge from docking.

Pressure from Louisiana authorities brought inspectors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the scene. With the barge moored to an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico, EPA inspectors boarded the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Point Lookout at Morgan City, Louisiana, and headed out into the gulf. Although the EPA and National Waste Contractors had apparently agreed to further inspection of the trash, St. Pierre did not wait for the cutter to arrive. Leaving the oil platform, he headed for Campeche, Mexico, a city on the Yucatán Peninsula.

Warned by U.S. authorities, the Mexican subsecretary of urban development and ecology, Sergio Reyes Luján, also refused to allow the barge to dock. The Mexican navy went on alert to ensure that Islip’s garbage did not come ashore. Harrelson’s next try was Belize, a small, thinly populated neighbor of Mexico on the southeastern Yucatán Peninsula. Again, the Mobro was turned away. On May 4, 1987, Captain St. Pierre and his tow were sailing off Key West, Florida, with nowhere to go. The governor of Florida, Robert Martinez, had also barred the barge from being unloaded in his state.

In New York, officials were embarrassed by the publicity that had been generated by the Mobro’s journey. Officials at the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said that there was no evidence of hazardous waste in Islip’s trash. Two landfills in upstate New York expressed interest in accepting the garbage for a fee, but citizens in the areas near the landfills raised such an outcry that the offers were withdrawn. Finally, New York authorities agreed to raise the limit on the capacity of the Blydenburgh landfill in Hauppauge by 900,000 tons. This increase allowed the site to accept all the trash on the Mobro and to resume accepting 500 tons of commercial refuse per day.

In exchange for the increase in landfill capacity, Islip had to agree to an extensive management program for the landfill. The program included conducting a detailed study of the groundwater under the landfill, hiring additional inspectors to prevent dumping of hazardous or toxic waste, and increasing the amount of recycled trash to 50 percent from about 15 percent.

On May 18, 1987, after a voyage of about six thousand miles, the Mobro arrived off Brooklyn, New York. At the last minute, New York City obtained a court restraining order and issued an administrative ban on docking the Mobro anywhere within the city limits. Because Islip lacked a suitable port facility, no action could be taken. On May 29, the judge lifted his restraining order, but the administrative ban issued by the city’s sanitation commissioner remained in effect.

A new strategy emerged on July 10, when New York City offered to burn the trash at its Brooklyn incinerator for a fee of $80,000. Burning was expected to produce about 400 tons of ash, which was to be trucked to Islip’s landfill. The Brooklyn borough president, who opposed the proposal, obtained a new court order on July 12, and on July 13 the union representing incinerator employees announced that their members would refuse to handle the trash. Settling these issues took until the end of August. Finally, on September 1, 1987, incineration of the trash began.


The Mobro was a highly visible symbol of a serious problem of which many people were unaware: It has become increasingly difficult to find places to put trash and garbage. Every year, garbage trucks in the United States pick up about 133 million tons of trash and garbage. One year’s collection in New York City is enough to fill Yankee Stadium with a pile one mile high.

Each person in the United States generates three to four pounds of solid waste every day. In a year, 1.6 billion disposable pens, 240 million used tires, 2 billion disposable razors, and 18 billion disposable diapers are thrown away. The overall composition of U.S. waste is 36 percent paper and cardboard, 20 percent yard waste, 9 percent food waste, 9 percent metals, 8 percent glass, 7 percent plastic, 6 percent textiles and wood, 3 percent rubber and leather, and 2 percent other materials. Although bacteria and other natural forces break down many of the items in trash, the rate of decay is slow. Milk cartons may take five years to decompose. Nylon cloth lasts from thirty to forty years. Aluminum cans decay in two to five centuries, and glass and some plastics will endure for millions of years.

Alternatives to landfilling solid waste include recycling Recycling and incineration. These activities attempt to deal with a problem that already exists. As the problem of solid-waste disposal became more widely known, some promoted the idea of reducing the amount of waste generated in the first place—that is, waste minimization. Waste;minimization About one-third of all solid waste is packaging material: boxes, bags, and other containers whose only purpose is to hold the things consumers buy. Although awareness regarding the waste problems caused by such packaging led some manufacturers to eliminate or reduce their use of packaging materials, efforts to produce significant reductions in packaging waste have been unsuccessful.

Another method of reducing solid waste is recycling. The Japanese have been recycling for more than one hundred years; by the end of the twentieth century, Japan was recycling 50-60 percent of its solid waste. Recycling in the United States has lagged far behind that figure, but American recycling efforts increased throughout the last decades of the twentieth century.

Glass, paper, metal, and some plastic can be recycled, but separation is critical. Aluminum waste must be separated from iron and steel waste. In addition to reducing solid waste, the recycling of aluminum saves a considerable amount of energy: It takes 7.5 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce one pound of aluminum from ore, whereas it takes only 5 percent of that amount to produce a pound of recycled aluminum. Different types of plastic waste must be separated for recycling, and it is often difficult for consumers to recognize the different types. Recycled glass must be separated by color: clear, amber, and green.

Incineration of waste reduces large quantities of raw waste to much smaller quantities of ash. A typical incinerator produces about thirty tons of ash for every one hundred tons of waste burned. The ash is heavy, and most of it falls to the bottom of the combustion chamber; the remaining ash is carried up the smokestack, where it can be captured by filters. Both types of ash, which may contain hazardous materials such as heavy metals, must still be disposed of in some way. In addition, as the waste is being burned, toxic gases can escape up the smokestack. Burning at very high temperatures helps prevent production of highly toxic substances such as dioxin, and devices called scrubbers can be placed in the stack to capture them.

A large incinerator was built in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the early 1980’s. At first, ash from the incinerator was hauled to landfills in Ohio and Virginia, but soon those facilities refused to accept it. In August, 1986, a Liberian ship, the Khian Sea, Khian Sea (ship) was loaded with fourteen thousand tons of this toxic ash. The Bahamas, Panama, and several other countries refused to allow the ash to be unloaded on their shores. In January, 1988, the ship’s personnel bribed officials in Haiti to allow them to unload some ash near the port of Gonaives. When the environmental group Greenpeace publicized the operation, the unloading stopped, but several thousand tons of ash were probably left in Haiti. In March, 1988, the ship returned to Philadelphia, but unloading of the toxic ash was forbidden there. The ship returned to sea in May, 1988, and its name was changed twice. In September, 1988, the Khian Sea was found under a new name sailing through the Suez Canal, and the ash was no longer on board. It is believed to have been illegally dumped in the Indian Ocean.

There are no simple solutions to the crisis in solid-waste disposal. Waste minimization, recycling, and incineration all play a part in the resolution of the problem. Some waste will continue to go into landfills. Cooperation among individuals and governments at all levels is required to manage the situation effectively. Mobro (garbage barge)
Garbage industry

Further Reading

  • Blumberg, Louis, and Robert Gottlieb. War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle with Garbage? Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1989. Provides a careful and detailed analysis of the waste-disposal crisis, including political aspects of the problem. Discusses recycling and incineration thoroughly.
  • Gay, Kathryn. Garbage and Recycling. Hillside, N.J.: Enslow, 1991. Briefly states the magnitude of the waste-disposal problem before discussing various recycling methods. Chapters are devoted to plastics, hazardous waste, and nuclear waste. Includes a few black-and-white photographs.
  • Hadingham, Evan, and Janet Hadingham. Garbage! Where It Comes from, Where It Goes. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990. Provides an excellent overview of the problems related to solid-waste disposal. Includes many color photographs as well as diagrams of modern landfill and incinerator construction.
  • Lamar, Jacob V., Jr. “Don’t Be a Litterbarge: No One Wants the Wretched Refuse of New York’s Teeming Shore.” Time, May 4, 1987, 26. Brief article was written while the barge was still at sea. Includes a map of the barge’s journey to date and a picture of the barge itself.
  • Long, Robert Emmet, ed. The Problem of Waste Disposal. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1989. Collection of magazine articles from journals such as Atlantic Audubon and Technology Review discusses recycling and incineration as well as the case of the Mobro. Includes sections devoted to hazardous waste and nuclear waste.
  • Marro, Anthony J., ed. Rush to Burn: Solving America’s Garbage Crisis? Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1989. Collection produced following a lengthy investigation by Long Island’s major daily newspaper Newsday focuses on the pros and cons of incineration. Discusses the Mobro incident very briefly. Includes black-and-white photographs and some useful maps and charts.
  • Miller, Benjamin. Fat of the Land: The Garbage of New York—The Last Two Hundred Years. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2000. Presents a comprehensive overview of the city’s refuse problem. Includes some discussion of the Mobro incident.
  • O’Connor, Karen. Garbage. San Diego, Calif.: Lucent Books, 1989. Begins with a short chapter about the garbage barge but goes on to deal with broader issues of waste disposal. Interesting chapters discuss how plastics contribute to the problem and how recycling can help. Includes black-and-white photographs.
  • Royte, Elizabeth. Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Boston: Little, Brown, 2005. Entertaining work by a journalist who investigated where her own trash and garbage end up. Includes both autobiographical details and discussion of technical research.

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