Recycling And The Mob

Aug 1, 2019
Originally published on August 1, 2019 6:17 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So in 1987, something convinced many U.S. cities to pick up recyclable items from residents' homes. Sarah Gonzalez with our Planet Money podcast reports it started with a garbage barge and the Mob.

SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: Yeah, we kind of owe recycling to the Mafia, like, the Gambinos, John Gotti - yeah, that Mafia. And it starts with this guy in Mobile, Ala.

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

GONZALEZ: Super proud of his age.

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

GONZALEZ: Not a Mafia guy, just a regular guy.

HARRELSON: You can 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 of Alabama.

GONZALEZ: Grew up in a home with no trash can.

HARRELSON: No, ma'am. Didn't need one. Everything we had to eat, we raised on that farm that we ate.

GONZALEZ: No waste, no trash can.

HARRELSON: Isn't that something?

GONZALEZ: Wow.

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

GONZALEZ: Then, in the 1980s, Harrelson learns this thing that he hates, trash, has a hidden use. The methane garbage emits can be turned into electricity. So Harrelson decides he's going to collect a bunch of garbage in North Carolina and turn it into energy. But he would need a lot of garbage. And at the time, if you were interested in garbage, New York was the place. But it was controlled by the Mob.

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

GONZALEZ: Specifically, you had to deal with a guy named Salvatore Avellino, Sal, a Mob boss with the Lucchese crime family who controlled garbage hauling on Long Island. Got 10 years for conspiring in the murders of two garbage men. And I found him.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

SALVATORE AVELLINO: Hello?

GONZALEZ: Hi, is this Salvatore?

AVELLINO: Yes.

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

AVELLINO: Well, I'd really rather not. I'll be honest to tell 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.

GONZALEZ: And do you mind telling me why you don't want to talk about?

AVELLINO: Yes, OK?

GONZALEZ: Yes. He minds. Salvatore Avellino's guys picked up garbage, and Lowell Harrelson wanted to buy it. There was a ride in a stretch Cadillac limo that was a little scary, but that was it. Harrelson was in business with the Mafia.

HARRELSON: He was a nice guy. I liked Sal.

GONZALEZ: They ran a barge called the Mobro 4000 and a tugboat to tug the barge. And on March 22, 1987, 3,186 tons of New York garbage set sail, steered by Captain Duffy St. Pierre.

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

GONZALEZ: People start noticing the barge moving down the coast. Like, what is that thing? They think there must be some mobster toxic waste hidden on the barge, and a court order blocks it from unloading in North Carolina.

HARRELSON: Told Duffy, get out in the ocean. Get away from this crowd.

GONZALEZ: The barge is tied to a cypress tree on the Mississippi River waiting. Mississippi didn't want it. Florida, Alabama, Louisiana all say, do not bring it here. The barge is on the nightly news. Like, who will say no tomorrow?

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The most-watched load of garbage in the memory of man.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: It's become something of a national joke.

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

GONZALEZ: So the barge is bobbing in the water two months, four months, baking in the sun. Poor Captain Duffy St. Pierre can't dock anywhere to take a shower even. And there were all these stats coming out at the time that showed town dumps were closing. So people thought they filled them all up. There was nowhere for this garbage to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: We've about run out of places to throw away our throwaway.

GONZALEZ: Were we full?

THOMAS KINNAMAN: We weren't full.

GONZALEZ: This is Thomas Kinnaman, an environmental economist at Bucknell University. He says town dumps were closing, but bigger regional landfills were taking their place. But people didn't see that.

KINNAMAN: And so the recycling era was born. That's why we recycle to this day. Who knows where we'd be without that barge?

GONZALEZ: After five months, a judge ordered Lowell Harrelson's garbage to go back to where it came from, New York, to be burned.

HARRELSON: What a legacy, huh? Forever will be known as that dummy who sailed the garbage barge.

GONZALEZ: You are basically the reason why we recycle.

HARRELSON: Yeah, it had an impact. On my tombstone, I would like them to say, this old boy did his damnedest. OK? And leave it there.

GONZALEZ: So we recycle now, in part because of a misconception that the U.S. was running out of landfill space. Sarah Gonzalez, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF BERRY WEIGHT'S "HORLOGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.