One of the biggest personalities in Baltimore isn’t playing on a sports field or occupying an office in city hall. Instead, he’s performing the rather ordinary task of cleaning the city’s waterways. But that’s exactly what’s made him famous. Maybe you’re one of his millions of Twitter followers or you’ve eagerly posed next to him for a selfie.
He’s Mr. Trash Wheel, a large garbage interceptor that works nonstop to clean rubbish in the Jones Falls stream of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Sporting a gaping maw of a mouth, he’s winning hearts and minds by improving the prized waterfront of Maryland’s largest city. And by stopping trash before it can empty into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, he’s making a difference far from the city limits.
John Kellet, the creator of the original Mr. Trash Wheel, is the founder of Clearwater Mills, a locally owned and operated logistics company based in Baltimore. He said he got the idea for the wheel after being dismayed at the glut of trash he witnessed flowing into the harbor after it rained.
“There should be a way to stop this trash before it spreads out,” he said. “I did some research to see if there was anything out there to tackle that job, and I found nothing.” So he decided to try to build something.
The problem Kellet noticed isn’t limited to Baltimore. A plastic-pollution crisis is plaguing our world. After realizing that the mouth of the main river feeding the harbor was the most logical place to capture trash, Kellet drew his idea on a napkin and made a small working prototype. From there, the wheel was set in motion. Since its installation Mr. Trash Wheel has intercepted over 3 million pounds of trash, making the harbor not only cleaner and more beautiful, but also a nicer home for local wildlife as well as waterfront businesses. Four different wheels now sit in Baltimore’s rivers, and soon more will be helping clean other cities across the globe.
A simple technology
The Trash Wheels employ a straightforward technology: A large water mill is turned by the flowing river which powers a system of pulleys that turn a large conveyor belt and an array of rakes which help scoop floating debris onto the conveyor belt as trash floats down stream. The trash wheel has 2 long floating buoys which trap garbage that’s floating on the surface and funnels it into the mouth of Mr. Trash Wheel. From there it gets carried up the conveyor belt and emptied into a large dumpster. A small crew easily removes and empties the floating dumpsters as they get full.
Power for the belt comes from river currents that turn the water mill, but the Trash Wheels are also outfitted with solar panels and batteries for times when the river isn’t flowing fast enough to turn the wheel.
Kellet is able to switch on pumps remotely from his smartphone that then pump water onto the wheel so it never stops turning and gobbling garbage. Mr. Trash Wheel also has an internet connection so Kellet can see what’s happening on the vessel via webcam and take action if needed.
After designing his concept, Kellet contacted the city, which was open to new ideas for combating the trash flowing into the harbor. He eventually partnered with a nonprofit called the Abell Foundation, which put up money to develop and refine the Trash Wheel concept. After much trial and error and months of testing and building Mr. Trash Wheel was installed in Baltimore’s Harbor.
Once Mr. Trash Wheel was operational, business and community leaders noticed the immediate improvement in the harbor’s pollution levels and lobbied to make the wheel a permanent fixture. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit funded by a coalition of local businesses, then got involved and began a campaign to produce more Trash Wheels and install them in other areas of Baltimore.
Adam Lindquist is the director of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, which aims to beautify the region by planting sustainable plants and organizing cleanup events and projects to improve the environment. He said Mr. Trash Wheel has impacted the Baltimore Harbor in ways that he could never have imagined and has delivered valuable data about where all the trash comes from.
“If you go to MrTrashWheel.com you can actually download a spreadsheet of every dumpster we’ve pulled out of the harbor over the past seven years, with an estimate of different types of trash that was in that dumpster,” Lindquist said. “We know that we’ve pulled out over a million styrofoam containers from the harbor, and that’s the sort of information, data and photos that we share with our elected officials to let them know just how big of a problem this is.”
Making hay of garbage
Kellet’s original idea for the wheels derived from a hay bailer. He grew up on a farm, and his original vision was to have some type of machine that could go around picking the garbage out of the water and disposing of it. But he ultimately settled on a concept based on the old industrial tools and water wheel technology used for hundreds of years in waterfront cities like Baltimore. Water mills powered Baltimore’s industry for decades, providing power to textile mills and lumber yards.
Mr. Trash Wheel and its cousin Trash Wheels look like big steamboats with their large water wheels constantly turning and directing trash onto the conveyor belt. But that’s not all they resemble. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore gave Mr. Trash Wheel a persona, adding a name, along with a cute face with large googly eyes. It also gave Mr. Trash Wheel an online media presence to increase his profile and make him a city attraction. People come visit Mr. Trash Wheel, take selfies and help spread the word of maintaining a clean and sustainable environment.
“Don’t Feed Mr. Trash Wheel” is a popular slogan of the campaign to help bring awareness to the pollution and littering problem. From the looks of Mr. Trash Wheel’s Twitter page, he’s very popular among the locals and has spawned a small industry around his likeness, with T-shirts, group cleanup events and even a local beer.
Mr. Trash Wheel has a few relatives in Baltimore, including Professor Trash Wheel, the first female Trash Wheel; Captain Trash Wheel, who’s nonbinary; and Gwynnda The Good Wheel of the West, who was recently the star of a ribbon cutting ceremony to mark her installation. They all have their own likes and dislikes on their public profiles online.
They’re also hungry, with a reputation for being able to gobble up larger pieces of trash, including a guitar, a full-size beer keg and on one occasion a ball python who escaped from its owner and made a home for itself on the warm battery casing of one of the Trash Wheels. Because the Trash Wheels don’t harm animals, they’ve become a kind of refuge for creatures seeking a safe place to nest. A mother duck once laid its eggs under the conveyor belt, and fish enjoy the oxygenated water that’s created as the wheel turns in the river during the summer.
Proud of what he’s accomplished, Kellet can’t believe how his idea has evolved over time.
“I never envisioned that we would have googly eyes on this machine and a name for it and a beer, and Trash Wheel T-shirts, and a Trash Wheel fan club and a Trash Wheel fan fest,” he said. “It’s kind of beyond my wildest dreams what’s happened in Baltimore, and it’s not only Baltimore. It has an internet following all over the world, and people come from miles away to come and see Mr. Trash Wheel.”
Watch the shorter YouTube video all about Mr. Trash Wheel, and don’t forget to subscribe to CNET’s YouTube channel for more. If you’re a city leader or official, you can adopt your own Trash Wheel at MrTrashWheel.com.
CNET’s Kent German contributed to this report.