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Lesson Plan

The Roots of Recycling

About this Video
By recounting perhaps the most vivid and famous news story in the history of solid waste disposal, this 12-minute video provides students with historical context for any lesson or unit focused on recycling, waste disposal or waste management strategies. Through the surprising and engaging story of the doomed trash barge Mobro, students will see how public attitudes in the U.S. toward recycling and sustainability began to shift. Useful as an introduction to a sequence of lessons focused on solid waste disposal or waste management strategies, the video sets up a conversation about the historical context of environmental problems and solutions.
  • How the disposal of solid waste in municipal landfills appeared to be in crisis by the late 1980s, and how local authorities were responding: by incineration and reshipment of locally collected waste.
  • How a complicated sustainability challenge like solid waste disposal can intersect with the political system and news media coverage.
  • How and why public attitudes toward waste management strategies like recycling have shifted over time.
  • Social Studies
  • U.S. History
  • Environment
  • Science
  • The Environment and Natural Resources
  • The Media
  • 1980s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

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.

Essential Questions
  • What business opportunity was Lowell Harrelson pursuing in New York? What was his idea for solving Islip’s solid waste disposal crisis? How did he intend to make money?
  • After the Mobro left port in New York, why did it have trouble getting rid of its cargo? On what grounds did local authorities deny the Mobro access to their ports?
  • What role did the EPA play in deciding the fate of the Mobro?
  • What happened to the Mobro cargo?
Lesson Procedure
  • How did the voyage of the Mobro affect public attitudes toward recycling? How did it affect attitudes toward landfills?
  • If, in today’s world, you were trying to shift public opinion about an issue of sustainability, how could you use the Mobro incident to bolster your argument?
  • The public’s attitude toward landfills and recycling have shifted substantially since 1986. By 2086, how will the public view solid waste disposal and waste management? Will there be landfills in 2086?
  • Do you think Lowell Harrison was ahead of his time, a misunderstood visionary? Or was his plan unwise?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "The Garbage Barge That Helped Fuel a Movement" Retro Report

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.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.

Skill 7.B: Describe potential responses to environmental problems.

Big Idea: Sustainability (STB)

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