A lasting legacy of New York’s famous garbage barge, PPEC turns 25

It was the garbage barge that did it. Over several months in 1987, the waste-packed Mobro 4000 chugged between US ports, hoping to offload its increasingly smelly cargo. Port after port refused to accept it. Turned away by Mexico and Belize, the “most watched load of garbage in the memory of man” took on a life of its own, a television saga, its daily progress (or lack of progress) constantly tracked like the recent search for an airliner missing over the Indian Ocean.((NBC claimed at the time that the Mobro 4000 was “chased away by the warplanes of two nations, presumably Mexico and Belize. The second quotation, “the most watched load of garbage in the memory of man” is attributed to news anchor, Dan Rather. Here is an interesting video from the NY Times, Retro Report ))

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The Mobro 4000 morphed into a telegenic symbol of a wasteful society, and together with an OECD report that portrayed Canadians as among the worst wasters in the world, encouraged politicians to do something about waste, especially packaging waste. In true Canadian fashion, a multi-stakeholder committee was set up, plans drafted, and in 1990 a National Protocol proclaimed.

PPEC was not yet in existence, but the National Packaging Protocol certainly got the attention of its future members. High-level meetings were held, and the decision taken to send a delegation to Ottawa to tell Environment Canada just what a great job the paper industry was doing in recycling.

The Ottawa meeting did not go as well as expected. Senior industry executives were stunned to discover that corrugated boxes, in particular, were considered to be “public enemy number one.” On a weight basis, they were a key and inviting target. “But we’re a major packaging material,” the executives argued, “so of course there’s going to be a lot of it. We’re also heavier than most other packaging, so yes, we’re going to stick out.” Adding for emphasis: “We also have a great record of paper recovery.” Nothing seemed to matter.

Somewhat chastened, the group reassembled back in Toronto to pass on the bad news. We need a national umbrella body, they decided, that would represent all the various sectors of the industry, both mills and converters, on environmental issues. A body with one voice, not several; and one that would come up with practical solutions, rather than having stupid (government) ones forced upon us; a body that would tell our story, and promote our achievements.

PPEC was born. This year it turns 25.((PPEC is organising a special afternoon and dinner celebration of its 25th anniversary in Mississauga, Ontario on October 28. Registration details will be available shortly.))

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John Mullinder

Executive Director Paper & Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC)
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