Many people complain that the news is garbage. But for more than six months in 1987, it actually was.
We’re talking real garbage. Trash. Waste. More than 3,150 tons of it, all on one barge—the Mobro 4000. An almost-bankrupt Alabama businessman, wary that one New York town’s landfill was almost full, suggested its trash be shipped to North Carolina, where it would be incinerated to generate methane gas for electricity. With this pioneering idea, the Mobro set sail.
But things didn’t go as planned. When the Mobro docked in the Tar Heel State, a port official said its waste was hazardous and turned it away. The barge tried Louisiana next, but the governor threatened to send out the National Guard if the Mobro docked in one of his state’s ports.
The media, apparently not busy enough covering the year’s Black Monday stock market crash, quickly jumped onto the story, giving it primetime coverage. For six months, helicopters and news crews tracked the barge’s every move as it was rejected by six states, Mexico, and Belize. Ironically, the Mobro’s load was eventually incinerated close to home in Brooklyn, but not before allegedly inspiring a 1999 episode of Futurama titled “A Big Piece of Garbage.”
The whole time the “Gar-barge” was at sea, Lowell Harrelson, the Alabama businessman responsible for it, was ridiculed for his vision that trash could be traded. Many couldn’t understand why he believed waste would translate into money. Besides, people thought, why would a state or country ever want to import trash?
In 2015, however, Harrelson is hardly seen as the sucker he was made out to be 28 years ago. On the contrary, he’s considered a visionary, because if there’s one thing he got right about today’s world, it’s that trash moves. A lot.
The domestic and international trash market is larger now than it has ever been. Seven Mobros-worth of trash—more than 23,000 tons—are shipped out of New York every day. And in the U.S. at large in 2003, 17 percent of all municipal solid waste (MSW) crossed state lines for disposal (that percentage is likely much higher today.) While most ends up in the largest state importer of waste, Pennsylvania, some of the trash goes as far as Europe, Asia, and Africa. This means the Chinese takeout box that you threw out last night, if it’s lucky, might end up in China in a few days.
“Wow, I really underestimated that opportunity,” a 78-year-old Harrelson said of the trash trade during a 2013 New York Times interview. He really did, especially considering his greater vision was also realized; trash can be made into energy. In fact, in 2013, almost 13 percent of the United States’ total MSW—more than 32 million tons—was combusted in nearly 90 waste-toenergy (WTE) facilities across the country, which use the heat produced from burning trash to generate electricity. Other countries, like Norway and Germany, now import trash by the boatloads to produce the energy that, for cities like Oslo, can heat half of the city’s buildings.
WTE facilities charge roughly $68 on average to dispose of one ton of waste. For some plants that process upwards of 2,000 tons of waste a day, this amounts to yearly revenues of more than $20 million.
For the business-minded, the dollar signs look appealing. But like all energy sources, WTE must be weighed for its environmental and social tolls. The net benefit of moving trash around the world depends on who you choose to believe, which reports you read, and what values you hold.
Ask an Oslo WTE plant owner or a ranking official of a leading WTE company in North America, for example, and you’ll hear that moving and burning garbage is a great way to process waste and generate electricity—and they’ll have research to prove it, too.
Furthermore, some municipalities like New York have virtually exhausted their landfill space, and so they have no option but to export their trash. This is great, WTE supporters argue, because other places, especially in Northern Europe, need more trash than they produce domestically to power their schools, homes, and offices.
To quiet worries about the environmental toll of burning garbage, WTE plant owners mention that their facilities generate 20 percent of all renewable energy in the U.S., minimize the volume of trash that is sent to landfills by more than 90 percent, and receive praise from the EPA for taking care not to pollute the air.
Ask an environmentalist or humanitarian, however, and you’ll hear a similarly convincing argument for why moving and burning garbage is far from ideal. Many environmental leaders criticize the WTE industry for focusing on burning trash rather than reducing its creation to begin with. Some say this attitude encourages the production of waste.
“There is pressure to produce more and more waste, as long as there is this overcapacity,” the chairman of a Norwegian environmental group explained. But in detailing what they see as the horrors of the trash trade, these activists don’t stop at the environmental toll.
In 1986, the cargo ship Khian Sea left Philadelphia with 15,000 tons of incinerated trash, but its cargo was rejected by eight countries over the course of 16 months. Fed up, the crew dumped 4,000 tons of its load in Haiti, where officials welcomed what they were told was topsoil fertilizer. But the lead-contaminated garbage was far from topsoil fertilizer. To top it off, while Haitian workers buried the load and officials sought justice, the Khian Sea dumped the rest of its toxic load into the Atlantic Ocean.
If you’re thinking, “but that was in 1986; That sort of thing would never happen today,” then consider these timelier cases—in 2006, 17 Ivorians died and 30,000 were sickened when a Dutch ship dumped more than 500 tons of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast’s largest city. In 2009, almost 1,500 tons of British household trash were sent to Brazil disguised as recyclable plastic. Around the same time, an American shipping container filled with rotting paint cans was illegally dumped in Nigeria.
Call it cruel, selfish, or barbaric, but the injustice committed against the people of the developing world (and against the Atlantic Ocean) has a name: toxic colonialism. Dr. Zada Lipman, an Australian professor of environmental law, defined it as when “underdeveloped states are used as inexpensive alternatives for the export or disposal of hazardous waste pollution by developed states.” Searching for the causes of toxic colonialism, T.V. Reed, an environmental justice professor at Washington State University, reasoned that “the colonizing process that labeled some people ‘primitive,’ ‘under-developed,’ and ‘inferior’ [has] justified, rationalized, and enabled degradation of the land.”
But according to Lawrence Summers, the former chief economist of the World Bank, there’s nothing wrong with dumping waste in the developing world. He offered this justification for “toxic colonialism”: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. [Any] health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.” In other words, throwing stuff away in poor countries is cheap, and the people who live there don’t really care about pollution and disease, so let’s do it.(one academic noted that Summers and the World Bank has since withdrawn the statement.)
More than 180 countries are parties to the Basel Convention, a 1992 United Nations treaty drafted to deter toxic colonialism. Not included is the world’s biggest producer of waste—the United States “We’ll be grappling with that in this administration,” one State Department official told the New York Times in 2009, a few months into President Obama’s first term. Now in 2015, the issue has not received much attention.
Ultimately, like with so many other issues, it comes down to the money side or the humanitarian side. Maybe you’re like Harrelson, who in 2013 said of the WTE industry, “I thought it was a very good idea, and still do!” Or maybe you’re someone who, unlike the former vice president of the World Bank, thinks developing countries need the developed world’s help—not its trash.
No matter which side you’re on, who you choose to believe, or what values you hold, one thing is clear: The words “migration” and “movement” no longer just refer to humans; they belong to our trash, too.