Lesson Plan

The Roots of Recycling


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.


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.
  • Environment
  • Science
  • AP Environmental 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 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?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "The Garbage Barge That Helped Fuel a Movement"Retro Report 

Integrate quantitative or technical analysis (e.g., charts, research data) with qualitative analysis in print or digital text.

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

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.

Use geospatial and related technologies to create maps to display and explain the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics.

Use geographic data to analyze variations in the spatial patterns of cultural and environmental characteristics at multiple scales.

Analyze relationships and interactions within and between human and physical systems to explain reciprocal influences that occur among them.

Make observations and measurements to identify materials based on their properties.

Develop a model to describe that matter is made of particles too small to see.

Construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth’s systems

  • 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.
  • 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.

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Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com