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

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A Barge Full of Garbage Helped to Fuel a Recycling Movement

Editor: Ben Howard
Reporter: Sarah Weiser

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.

View full episodes at PBS.org/RetroReport.

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