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.
A quarter century later, Retro Report has tracked down the colorful characters most deeply involved in the debacle: Lowell Harrelson, the Alabama entrepreneur (and poet), who, though mocked at the time, turned out to be something of a visionary; Tommy Gesuale, the garbage hauler whose connections made the whole venture possible; Brendan Sexton, then New York City’s Sanitation Commissioner, who faced public fears that ranged from AIDS-infected flies to tropical vermin.
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.