Episode 925: A Mob Boss, A Garbage Boat and Why We Recycle : Planet Money In 1987, an Alabama man had an idea. So he made a deal with the mob. And ended up with 3,186 tons of trash no landfill would take. This is the accidental birth of recycling in the U.S. ⎸Subscribe to our newsletter here.
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Episode 925: A Mob Boss, A Garbage Boat and Why We Recycle

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Episode 925: A Mob Boss, A Garbage Boat and Why We Recycle

Episode 925: A Mob Boss, A Garbage Boat and Why We Recycle

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SARAH GONZALEZ, HOST:

I started working on this story about recycling. I did not expect a lost ship and the mob.

THOMAS KINNAMAN: Well, I can tell you a story that is actually quite interesting about the origination of recycling.

GONZALEZ: This is Thomas Kinnaman. He's a professor of economics at Bucknell University.

KINNAMAN: To be able to understand why Americans embrace recycling, you have to understand the story of the garbage barge, or the garbage ship called the Mobro.

GONZALEZ: The Mobro?

KINNAMAN: Yeah, the Mobro - M-O-B-R-O.

GONZALEZ: Tell me the story.

KINNAMAN: Yeah. The problem is this guy was allegedly part of the Mafia, so I don't want him getting too mad at me (laughter).

GONZALEZ: Is he still alive?

KINNAMAN: I don't know. You can Google it.

GONZALEZ: OK (laughter).

He is still alive. And yeah, we kind of owe recycling to the Mafia, to the so-called five families in New York who made up the Italian American Mafia - you know, the Gambinos, John Gotti - that Mafia. Specifically, we owe recycling to a guy named Salvatore Avellino - Sal, a chauffeur and mob boss with the Lucchese crime family, who controlled garbage hauling on Long Island - got 10 years for conspiring in the murders of two garbagemen. And I found Sal.

OK. I'm going to call a real, actual mob boss.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SALVATORE AVELLINO: Hello.

GONZALEZ: That's Al.

Hi. Is this Salvatore?

AVELLINO: Yes.

GONZALEZ: Hey, Salvatore. My name is Sarah. I am doing - I work for an economics show, and I'm doing a story about the garbage barge. I know that it's kind of a complicated story, but I want to see if you would chat with me about it.

AVELLINO: Well, I'd really rather not, I'll be honest with you. I want to be polite. But - good luck, but I really don't want to talk about it. It was the greatest idea, but I was way ahead of my time. But I don't want to really go into it. OK? I'm sorry.

GONZALEZ: OK. Do you mind telling me why you don't want to talk about it?

AVELLINO: Yes. OK?

GONZALEZ: Yes, he minds. OK?

OK.

AVELLINO: Thank you.

GONZALEZ: OK. Thank you so much, Salvatore.

AVELLINO: You're welcome.

GONZALEZ: OK.

AVELLINO: Bye-bye.

GONZALEZ: Bye-bye.

OK. Decades ago, Sal had a business partner, a guy named Lowell Harrelson of Mobile, Ala. - not a Mafia guy, just a regular guy.

I'm so glad that I got in touch with you, Lowell.

LOWELL HARRELSON: Well, it's always nice to meet new folks, you know? So I'm happy you did, too.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

HARRELSON: I wish you would be on another subject.

GONZALEZ: Lowell also does not want to tell me the story.

HARRELSON: You know, I'd rather just let that thing go away. You know, frankly, I'd sooner I never had to mention it again.

GONZALEZ: I mean, OK. Would you be open to just chatting with me, like, five minutes?

HARRELSON: I'm not fond of the subject, I can assure you. Nonetheless, you sound like a nice lady. And if you're ever in Mobile, you give me a call. And we'll meet up, and I'll buy us a cup of coffee.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) OK. Well, then, I think I'm going to plan a trip to Mobile.

HARRELSON: Very good. You let me know when you plan to arrive. I would even pick you up. OK.

GONZALEZ: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSANDRO RIZZO, ANDREW DWIGHT LEVY, ELLIOT GREENWAY IRELAND, JAN KINCAID AND SIMON JAMES BARTHOLOMEW'S "SNAKEWEED")

GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. Today on the show, the greatest shame and secret of Lowell Harrelson's life that changed garbage in the U.S. forever. It's Part I of two shows. And the first story involves the Mafia, a talking Jaguar, a bug and 6 million pounds of trash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALESSANDRO RIZZO, ANDREW DWIGHT LEVY, ELLIOT GREENWAY IRELAND, JAN KINCAID AND SIMON JAMES BARTHOLOMEW'S "SNAKEWEED")

GONZALEZ: I pull up to the wrong white house with pink flowers in the front yard.

HARRELSON: (Unintelligible) Miss Sarah...

GONZALEZ: Honey, Lowell tells me, this is Mobile, Ala. Everything in this area is a white house with pink flowers in the front yard.

(Laughter) OK.

HARRELSON: Oh, I see. You're over at my neighbor's house.

GONZALEZ: I find the right house, and Lowell is there in the driveway waiting for me.

Hello.

Lowell makes us chat at his kitchen table for an hour before he's ready to get into the garbage barge. And when he's finally ready, he sits up a little taller.

Will you just say your name for me?

HARRELSON: Lowell Harrelson - H-A-R-R-E-L-S-O-N.

GONZALEZ: If you ask Lowell Harrelson how old he is, he answers beaming with pride - 85.

HARRELSON: Eighty-five - can you believe that? Still running on two cylinders.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter) And what is your title?

HARRELSON: (Laughter) I don't really have a title anymore.

GONZALEZ: You're like a entrepreneur, businessman.

HARRELSON: Well, I guess you could call it that. That sounds rather sophisticated for somebody like me. You could call me a farmer, if you like. That's how I grew up.

GONZALEZ: They were sharecroppers - grew corn, cotton...

HARRELSON: Potatoes, all kinds of vegetables - typical, typical of Alabama.

GONZALEZ: Lowell grew up in a home with no trash can.

HARRELSON: We did not have a trash, no ma'am - didn't need one. We didn't have no trash. Everything we had to eat, we raised on that farm that we ate. We did get a 5 pounds of sugar once in a while.

GONZALEZ: They'd also get a 50-pound sack of flour. Lowell remembers the bag came with these little flower designs on it.

HARRELSON: So my mama made my sister's school dresses out of it.

GONZALEZ: No waste; no trash can.

HARRELSON: Isn't that something?

GONZALEZ: Wow.

HARRELSON: And we were happy. Oh, those were the days.

GONZALEZ: Those days were in the 1930s. And at some point in Lowell's life, things changed. Now we produce so much garbage.

HARRELSON: My God, you see how much garbage? How can we do this?

GONZALEZ: This is where Lowell's story with garbage really takes off. It's the '80s. Lowell is in the construction business. But like a lot of people at the time, he's thinking about alternative energy. And he hears about a guy in Westchester, N.Y., who was turning garbage into energy. And Lowell thinks, all that stuff that I hate sitting in landfills has this hidden use.

So your motivation was to turn garbage into energy.

HARRELSON: That's correct. Garbage to energy, it looked like a very simple deal.

GONZALEZ: He consults with some engineers. And they say, yeah, this is a thing; this works. When you pile up trash, it decomposes and emits methane, a gas. And you can use methane to make power. So if we got enough garbage, we could sell the electricity to the grid.

HARRELSON: Everybody agreed this had merit. It was a question of putting the pieces together.

GONZALEZ: By the way, we use this method today to get energy from landfills. But back then, it was a new idea, and Lowell saw a business opportunity. He was going to create a huge pile of garbage and use it for electricity. But he would need a lot of garbage. Your local dump - that wasn't enough garbage. He needed boatloads of garbage. And at the time, if you were interested in garbage, New York was the place.

New York City in the '80s had begun running out of landfill space and had to start paying other states to take their garbage. So Lowell is like, perfect - I'll use some of that garbage for my big-pile-of-garbage plan. But in New York at the time, garbage was controlled by the mob.

HARRELSON: Oh, yes. Now, that's a story that'll take a lot more time than we have today. Garbage in New York, that was like a controlled substance. There was a cartel that controlled the flow of garbage. And that's who you had to deal with.

GONZALEZ: But he didn't know any of this at the time. All he knew was that if he wanted to buy garbage in New York, he needed to talk to a guy named Sal.

You already know Sal.

AVELLINO: Well, I'd really rather not.

HARRELSON: That's Sal.

GONZALEZ: That's him?

HARRELSON: That's him.

GONZALEZ: Sal had guys who collected New York trash, but they still had to pay to dump the trash somewhere - to get it landfilled. And Lowell, he tells Sal - what if I take the garbage off your hands for less? Think about it. And then the FBI shows up at Lowell's door.

HARRELSON: Yeah. The FBI spoke to me two or three times, you know? What are you up to? I'm hauling garbage. You got any, throw it on there. And that's when he said, oh, you know you're dealing with the mob? That's what it was. No, I didn't know that. But it doesn't matter.

GONZALEZ: I'm trying to make energy over here.

HARRELSON: Yeah, that's right.

GONZALEZ: (Laughter).

Lowell knowingly gets into business with the Mafia. But he says it didn't really feel like working with the Mafia. There was a ride in a stretch Cadillac limo that was a little scary for Lowell. There was a dinner with Sal. Some guy told Lowell where to sit, and that's where Lowell sat. And that was it. Lowell would buy Sal's garbage.

HARRELSON: He's a nice guy. I like Sal. He's the guy that had the talking Jaguar. You never heard about that?

GONZALEZ: The talking Jaguar - this is a tangent. But I mean, there's a talking Jaguar. We have to. Salvatore Avellino had a 1982 black Jaguar. That's what he drove the boss, Antonio "Tony Ducks" Corallo, in. Tony Ducks because he ducked law enforcement - at least until this one thing happened on a rainy night in March of 1983.

Salvatore's black Jaguar is parked outside of a restaurant on Long Island. An agent opens the door. Another agent holds some kind of cover over the Jaguar to make sure that no raindrops spot the seat. They remove the dashboard, place a bug inside, put the dashboard back. They tapped Sal's Jaguar. And this bug recorded mob conversations that eventually took down all five bosses of the Mafia. The car talked - the talking Jaguar.

OK, back to Lowell. Lowell's not doing anything illegal; he's just buying garbage. He arranges with a landfill in North Carolina that he's going to dump tons of New York garbage there and create a methane paradise.

So - OK. So you had the source. You had the seller. You had landfills agreeing to take the garbage.

HARRELSON: All the pieces were in place.

GONZALEZ: Next, he has to move the garbage down. And the cheapest way to do that is by boat - barge, actually. He gets one from Jacksonville, Fla., called the Mobro 4000, a big, flat, iron deck to load the garbage onto. And he gets a tugboat from New Orleans called the Break of Dawn to tow the barge.

A tugboat?

HARRELSON: A huge tugboat.

GONZALEZ: My impression of a tugboat is, like, this little tiny, little cute little tugboat.

HARRELSON: It's not (laughter).

GONZALEZ: OK.

HARRELSON: Pound for pound, ain't nothing more powerful than those tugboats.

GONZALEZ: The barge gets loaded up in New York - 20 feet high, held down with cables. And on March 22, 1987, 3,186 tons of garbage set sail, steered by Captain Duffy St. Pierre.

HARRELSON: Duffy St. Pierre, one of the best in the business.

GONZALEZ: Were you there when it got loaded up?

HARRELSON: Sure.

GONZALEZ: Oh, you were.

HARRELSON: (Laughter) Honey, I was watching that like a mama would watch over her new baby. What you talking about? At that time, my whole life was tied to that thing.

GONZALEZ: At that time, Lowell is full of hope.

HARRELSON: I told Duffy, the captain - now, hurry up and get back here fast as you can so we can get another load down there for the weekend, you know?

GONZALEZ: Oh, you were ready to make trips.

HARRELSON: Oh, yeah. Yeah, we were ready to load up.

GONZALEZ: The barge is moving very slowly, and people start noticing. Like, what is that thing?

HARRELSON: And somewhere in there, a crowd started showing up. And then there was newspaper people, TV people, all those folks wanting to know who this idiot is hauling all this garbage around. I said, here I am. What else can I say?

GONZALEZ: Remember, New York was already trucking garbage to other states, so Lowell didn't think a ship would be any different. But somehow, the sight of this barge full of trash coming down the coast did not sit well with people.

HARRELSON: All these people - we don't want that garbage in our wonderful state. Immediately, it was pretty obvious this was going to be a whole different problem than what I had - I had not anticipated this.

GONZALEZ: Now, this is just normal garbage from people's homes - nothing especially toxic or dangerous about it - but the EPA had just released new rules that said you couldn't dump toxic waste in landfills anymore. Someone said they saw a bedpan on the barge, like, from a hospital or something, so everyone got it into their heads that there must be some Yankee mobster toxic waste hidden on the barge and they're trying to unload it on us. A court order blocks the barge from unloading in North Carolina.

HARRELSON: I couldn't do anything more to try to force their hand, which was discussed. You know, we had a valid contract, but to try to force their hand would not have helped anybody.

GONZALEZ: So what did you do next?

HARRELSON: I told him - told Duffy to get out in the ocean, get away from this crowd, get out over the horizon, drop anchor and let's give us some time to think, you know?

GONZALEZ: Oh, you dropped the anchor so it's just hanging out in the ocean.

HARRELSON: Sitting out there for - until we could meet and see what we're going to do next.

GONZALEZ: At some point, Florida goes, well, we'll take it. We'll charge you this much to unload it here. Come on over. So there goes Duffy.

HARRELSON: We get there on the coast of Florida somewhere, and out comes a crowd of 10,000. And it's dead again. Wherever we went, it drew big crowds.

GONZALEZ: Alabama said, don't even think about bringing it here. Lowell has the barge tied to a cypress tree on the Mississippi River, waiting. Mississippi didn't want it. Louisiana - don't bring it here either. It was like a soap opera. A helicopter is following the barge around. It's on the nightly news. Like, who will say no tomorrow?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: It's become something of a national joke.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: That garbage barge, which has been unsuccessfully seeking a home for almost a month and a half now...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Still loaded with tons of garbage, still unwanted.

GONZALEZ: So this little tugboat is tugging the barge around, looking for a home. Poor Captain Duffy St. Pierre can't dock anywhere to take a shower, even. And it seems like everyone is following the garbage barge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: The most watched load of garbage in the memory of man...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Dripping brown ooze of possibly infectious material.

HARRELSON: People everywhere are talking about how they found syringes, and there wasn't none - nothing.

GONZALEZ: The EPA comes out in white suits and breathing masks to inspect the garbage. They determine it's fine. It's just garbage - doesn't matter. The Mexican navy went to the barge to deliver a message that the barge was not wanted in Mexico. Belize, the Bahamas - they sent out their defense forces. Do not bring it here. And Lowell says he wasn't actually trying to send the garbage to other countries. They just thought he was too close to them, I guess.

HARRELSON: It was just so surprising. Something of that magnitude to hit like it did - it's so surprising. It was numbing, really.

GONZALEZ: So the barge is bobbing in the water in the Gulf of Mexico two months, three months, four months, waves of saltwater crashing over the garbage, baking in the sun, covered in flies, probably seagulls.

HARRELSON: Well, lady, you stir up some awful, long emotions in a man.

GONZALEZ: What people took from the image of this garbage barge sailing around for months was that there was no place for the garbage to go. It became a symbol for America's problem with trash.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: We've about run out of places to throw away our throw-away.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: By 1990, according to one federal survey, at least 27 states will be critically short of space to dump garbage.

GONZALEZ: Everyone is like, what have we done? What have we done to this country? We've filled it with trash.

Movies are made about the barge.

KINNAMAN: There was a film called "Sex, Lies, And Videotape."

GONZALEZ: This is economist Thomas Kinnaman again. In the movie, he says, the main character starts out sitting on a therapist's couch.

KINNAMAN: The very first scene in the movie - and she's like, I just can't sleep at night. I just - where is all the garbage going?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE")

ANDIE MACDOWELL: (As Ann) Garbage - all I've been thinking about all week is garbage. I mean, I just can't stop thinking about it.

RON VAWTER: (As therapist) What kind of thoughts about garbage?

MACDOWELL: (As Ann) I just - we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually. The last time I started feeling this way is when that barge was stranded and, you know, it was going around the island, and nobody would claim it. Do you remember that?

VAWTER: (As therapist) Yes, I remember.

GONZALEZ: There were all these stats coming out at the time that showed that the number of landfills in America was plummeting. Landfills were closing, and people kept citing these stats in stories about the garbage barge.

KINNAMAN: And so people put it all together, and in their minds, the conclusion was that the United States is running out of landfill space. The United States was full - that we couldn't store any more.

GONZALEZ: And were we full?

KINNAMAN: We weren't full. The reason why the...

GONZALEZ: We were not full. OK.

KINNAMAN: They weren't full. Yeah.

GONZALEZ: OK. Here's what else was happening at the time. Yes, landfills were closing, but that was because there were new rules for landfills - stricter rules to protect the environment. The EPA said you now have to do things like line the bottom of landfills with plastic so they don't contaminate the groundwater.

KINNAMAN: And so the old town dump - every little town had one - was out of compliance. You can't accept garbage in here anymore. It's illegal. And so these town dumps were closing by the dozens.

GONZALEZ: But in their place, regional landfills were becoming a thing - bigger landfills that could accept trash while still following all of these new rules. The Natural Resources Defense Council says there used to be about 10,000 dumps in the mid-'80s and that now we have less than 3,000. But we were not running out of space then, and we still aren't running out of space. Thomas says we probably have thousands of years of landfill space left in the U.S. And even hardcore environmentalists reluctantly agree that, yeah, we have a lot of space left. But people thought we were running out of space, and that was what mattered.

KINNAMAN: And so the recycling era was born. This is when state government said, we're going to require cycling to - recycling to occur.

GONZALEZ: This is when people started separating their paper and plastic into little bins in their homes and offices - because of Lowell and the Mafia's garbage.

KINNAMAN: That had more of an impact on society than anything else we talked about. That was - that's where - that's why we recycle to this day. Who knows where we'd be without that barge?

GONZALEZ: Recycling became the answer to a problem that didn't exist. There were good environmental reasons for it, of course - less waste, less pollution - but that's not what convinced cities to start sending trucks to everyone's homes to pick up their glass bottles and cardboard boxes. Fear convinced us to do that.

KINNAMAN: And it ended up with laws that cost more, and municipalities had to figure out ways to make it work and - financially. And we kind of been moving along since then.

GONZALEZ: Lowell's garbage barge made a five-month, 6,000-mile journey before it found a home. A judge ordered the trash to go back to where it came from - New York - to be burned. Greenpeace hung up a sign that said, next time, try recycling. The ashes were buried in the landfill. Lowell paid.

How much money did you lose?

HARRELSON: Now, I'm not going to tell you that. That's the most embarrassing secret of my life - more than I would ever want to dream of. (Laughter) It was a worst proposition I ever got into - OK? - and forever will be known as that dummy who sailed the garbage barge. What a legacy, huh? What a legacy.

GONZALEZ: Well, how do you feel about - I mean, you are basically the reason why we recycle.

HARRELSON: Yeah, I - it had an impact. I understand all that. But it doesn't reduce my pain of being the world's biggest dummy, OK? (Laughter).

GONZALEZ: Lowell, you are not the world's biggest dummy.

HARRELSON: Yeah, I am. But it helped me in one respect, I guess.

GONZALEZ: Lowell says the barge taught him an important lesson - that some issues are so totally unpredictable. If he could go back to school, he says he'd want to study anthropology to understand why people hate the things they hate, like garbage.

HARRELSON: On my tombstone, I would like them to say, this old boy did his damnedest, OK? It's all right with me if they'd refer to that dummy that had that barge in the ocean. It suits me fine. (Laughter) They can put that on my tombstone if they like. I don't have any hard feelings toward anybody. I have nothing but love and respect for people, wherever they are and whoever they are. And I'm not the least bit worried about a legacy of any kind.

GONZALEZ: So we recycle now, but should we? That's next time on PLANET MONEY.

PLANET MONEY has made another video. This video is based on our episode about the man who hacked the lottery and won a dozen times. We find out how he pulled it off. You can watch the video on npr.org/planetmoneyshorts, and we link to it on our Instagram and Facebook. If you have a story idea, send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org.

Today's show was produced by Sally Helm. Bryant Urstadt edits our show, and Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer. Rachel Cohn and our intern Cynthia Betubiza helped so much with fact-checking. And if you want to help out PLANET MONEY, leave us a rating or review us in your podcast app.

I'm Sarah Gonzalez. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

On the next PLANET MONEY - Part II.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Unfortunately, recycling is - I'm not saying it's dead, but it certainly - I wouldn't say life support, but it's critical (laughter). And I don't want to be the person to burst their bubble.

GONZALEZ: You will not be the one to burst people's bubble. I will burst their bubble.

(LAUGHTER)

GONZALEZ: Me and a bunch of cold-hearted economists.

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