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Waste of a Sort: Curbside Recycling Comforts the Soul, But Benefits Are Scant

January 19, 1995

Remember the garbage barge? Plying coastal waters in 1987 without any place to dump its unsightly cargo, it startled the nation into getting serious about recycling household trash.

Tens of millions of Americans now make a daily ritual of sorting their garbage for collection by curbside-recycling programs, which cover one-third of U.S. households. Environmental groups, government and industry alike lend their support. And why not? Residential recycling _ up tenfold since 1987 _ is widely credited with conserving dwindling garbage-dump space, saving money and protecting the environment.

Besides, it makes people feel good. For many, a little trash sorting has become a form of penance to acknowledge that the values of our high-consumption society don’t always nurture the soul. ``People are worried about the planet,″ says environmentalist Paul Connett of Canton, N.Y. ``They ask: `What can we do?′ They can do something about trash.″

There’s just one problem. At least by any practical, short-term measure, curbside recycling doesn’t pay. It costs residents and local governments hundreds of millions of dollars more than can be recouped by selling the sorted trash. It requires huge new fleets of collection trucks that add to traffic congestion and pollution. And it does so at a time when landfill space turns out to be both plentiful and extremely cheap.

What’s more, some critics say, household recycling gives people such an easy environmental fix that they have started paying less attention to such serious, complex problems as air and water pollution. Trash sorting, contends environmental fund-raiser Roger Craver, has ``done more to hurt the environmental movement than anything I can think of.″

How consumers came to embrace household recycling after decades of indifference is a bizarre tale of misperceptions and mistaken assumptions that snowballed into a national myth. The movement was helped along by faulty analogies between commercial and industrial recycling _ which are often cost-effective and environmentally friendly _ and the much dicier proposition of house-to-house collection. And it benefited from the fact that a lot of people firmly believe recycling is the right thing to do, regardless of cost or provable environmental benefits.

It might not have happened, though, if not for a barge named Mobro that owed its existence, it turns out, not to a shortage of dump space but to a dramatic change in the trash-disposal market _ and a mob-inspired effort to make the most of it.

Through most of history, of course, there was no garbage market at all: People merely heaved their trash outside for pigs and goats to feed on. About 200 years ago, people began burying trash near their homes and then bringing it to town dumps. But the development of the so-called sanitary landfill in the 1970s and 1980s altered the basic economics of garbage disposal.

The modern landfill featured a clay or plastic liner, plumbing to collect runoff liquids and to control methane and a daily layer of fresh dirt to keep rats and birds from scavenging. Engineering studies were used to help pick dump locations less likely to foul groundwater.

With construction costs of up to $500,000 an acre, a landfill piled 300 feet high turned out to be many times more economical _ and no more environmentally troublesome _ than one piled to 50 feet. So entrepreneurs built larger dumps. By the mid-1980s, it actually began to pay to ship trash long distances to bigger, cheaper dumps in less-populated regions.

One of the local haulers seeking to profit from the regional price disparities was Salvatore Avellino. A reputed captain in the Lucchese organized-crime family, Mr. Avellino was allegedly mob overseer of all trash hauling on Long Island, N.Y. (He went to prison last year after pleading guilty to conspiracy charges in the murders of two rebel haulers.)

In 1987, Mr. Avellino met with Lowell Harrelson, a Bay Minette, Ala., man who envisioned a fleet of barges connecting New York to $5- and $10-a-ton Southern dumps. The boss was interested, recalls Michael J. Cahill, attorney for the Long Island town of Islip, and haulers from other communities in the New York City area joined in to finance the first trip of the Mobro. In March 1987 it shoved off with 3,186 tons of trash on board.

But Mr. Harrelson, an admitted ``novice in the waste business,″ didn’t sufficiently nail down an agreement with a dump. Though he initially planned to unload in Louisiana, Mr. Harrelson tried to line up something closer once the barge set sail, and he contacted Larry Meadows, county manager in rural Jones County, N.C. ``We had room,″ Mr. Meadows says of the dump. ``And we certainly were looking for something to help with the decreasing tax base.″

But before Mr. Meadows and other county officials could consult with state regulators, the Mobro steamed into Morehead City, N.C., ready to unload. ``It was already en route when he talked to us,″ Mr. Meadows says. ``That had us questioning the deal.″ What was the rush? Was there hazardous waste mixed in? Who were these people?

The questions were never pursued. State officials took over and ordered the Mobro back out to sea. The news media got word. And everywhere the Mobro went _ Louisiana, Mexico, the Bahamas _ it was rejected. The U.S. Southeast had (and still has) an abundance of dump capacity and was accepting thousands of tons a week of waste arriving by truck from the Northeast. But nobody wanted to take this famous load of trash. After two months at sea, the Mobro returned to New York, and the trash was later burned in a Brooklyn incinerator.

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