photo courtesy of the Waterfront Partnership
while walking around Baltimore City's Inner Harbor, especially as you near the festival piers, you may notice something strange (yet cute) floating in the water... Meet Mr. Trash Wheel—a solar-powered waste collecting device invented by Baltimore resident, John Kellett, and managed by the Waterfront Partnership's Healthy Harbor initiative. Sporting a plastic shell outfitted with several solar panels, and some oh-so-distinguishable eyeballs, Mr. Trash Wheel has been collecting + removing waste from the tail end of Jones Falls River, which would otherwise end up finding its way into the harbor. We met with Malia Pownall, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Intern for the Waterfront Partnership, to learn more about the history of this harbor hero, how he operates + what other steps are being taken to help create + maintain cleaner waterways in Charm City.
hg: Mr. Trash Wheel has recently become quite the celebrity in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Tell us a bit about who/what exactly Mr. Trash Wheel is…
malia: Mr. Trash Wheel is a hydro + solar-powered trash interceptor that is stationed at the outfall of the tributary that emits the most floating trash into the Inner Harbor, the Jones Falls River. A second trash wheel, Professor Trash Wheel, is stationed at the end of the Harris Creek in Canton. The trash wheel machine is a sustainable + efficient solution to keep floating trash from entering the Inner Harbor.
hg: who created the device + what inspired them to do so? Is this based off similar devices found elsewhere around the country or is it a totally unique concept?
malia: John Kellett is the name of the Baltimore man who invented Mr. Trash Wheel. He worked on ships in the Harbor, crossing over the footbridge between Pier 5 + Pier 6 on his daily walk to work. Prior to the installation of the trash wheel, the water underneath the bridge would be completely covered in trash after heavy rainstorms. Of course, this trash would ultimately end up in the Harbor and travel out to the Chesapeake Bay. Tired of hearing complaints from visitors and Baltimore residents alike, Kellett conceptualized the trash wheel—his first sketch was done on the back of a napkin.
The trash interceptor combines old + new technologies. The water wheel is a distinct machine in itself, and was prominent in mills that existed in Baltimore’s early industrial days. When the current is too weak to provide power for the wheel, the solar powered battery pumps water on the wheel to add additional pressure, therefore turning it to activate the conveyor belt. Altogether, the design is original and…
"…Baltimore is home to the first ever trash wheel!"
hg: how does Mr. Trash Wheel consume/collect trash? What are the technical details behind his operation?
malia: Mr. Trash Wheel is situated on a retrofitted barge at the end of the Jones Falls River. Storm water drains off of streets + alleys into the totally piped river, which washes out of the outfall and into the Harbor. Street and alley trash, along with debris is washed out with the water. Floating booms funnel the trash to the “mouth” of the trash wheel. A rake and conveyor belt system, powered by the water wheel + solar powered battery, lift the trash from the water and deposit it into the dumpster in the rear of the machine. The dumpster sits on a separate floating barge, so it may be easily switched out and replaced when full. The collected trash is taken to the Wheelabrator Incinerator, where it is burned and converted into electricity that powers Maryland homes.
photos courtesy of the Waterfront Partnership
hg: What can you tell us about how the wheel is powered? Why was it important to take a sustainable approach to operating the wheel?
malia: it uses hydropower from the current to turn the wheel. Additionally, an array of solar panels charges a battery that pumps water onto the wheel when the current isn’t strong enough to power it alone. It was important to take a sustainable approach to operating the wheel in order to minimize fuel cost, as well as to serve as…
"…a successful example of innovative + impactful green technology."
hg: let’s talk about that name and those eyes…Mr. Trash Wheel possesses quite the personality while out on the water. What was the thought behind bringing some personality into this project?
malia: at the 2016 Light City event, the Healthy Harbor Initiative had temporary eyeballs mounted on the trash wheel. When they were taken down after the week-long event, an Internet petition presented over a thousand signatures vying for the return of the eyeballs. The Baltimore-based company, Key Tech, designed + installed a permanent rendition of the eyes and, ever since, Mr. Trash Wheel has grown in popularity in Baltimore and across the world.
"He is sassy, quirky + provides laughs to his international following of over 10,000 adoring fans."
His marketability, thanks to his unique design and handsome eyes, make him an ideal platform by which Healthy Harbor can communicate scientific information to the public.
hg: how about some numbers… how much trash has been removed from area waterways thanks to the efforts of Mr. Trash Wheel? How many cigarette butts alone have been collected?
malia: in 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel collected approximately 141 tons of trash, approximately 239 tons of trash in 2015 and approximately 163 tons of trash in 2016. Since her installation in December 2016, Professor Trash Wheel has collected over 8 tons of trash. In 2016, Mr. Trash wheel collected 1,919,600 cigarette butts alone which, if lined up from end-to-end, they would reach from Baltimore to Washington D.C.
hg: where can we catch Mr. Trash Wheel in action—when is he usually at work?
malia: you can always find Mr. Trash Wheel at Pier 5 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, however he primarily works during + after rainfalls. If you want to watch him in action but don’t want to sit out in the rain, check out our live cam.
photos courtesy of the Waterfront Partnership
hg: Baltimore’s Inner Harbor + surrounding waterways have long been subject to scrutiny (and in some cases, rightly so). What do you hope Mr. Trash Wheel + the other efforts being taken by the Waterfront Partnership will do not only for the cleanliness of the harbor but the public’s perception of it?
malia: Mr. Trash Wheel, along with other projects + efforts of the Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, contributes to the improved health of our waterways. Aside from cleaning the water, the Healthy Harbor Initiative hopes to raise awareness of the issues, provide solutions and ways to help and volunteer, as well as spread knowledge.
hg: what are some of the other initiatives which the Waterfront Partnership is taking to clean up and redefine Baltimore’s waterways?
malia: with the Great Baltimore Oyster Partnership, a collaboration between Healthy Harbor + the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, volunteers grow baby oysters (spat) in the harbor for nine months. At the end of this period, the volunteers boat out to Fort Carroll and “plant” the oysters on a sanctuary reef where the oysters will never be harvested. Instead, they will continue to grow and reproduce to increase the oyster population, filter water, and provide food + habitat for other critters.
Healthy Harbor’s floating wetlands are another component of sustainable, eco-friendly projects in the Inner Harbor. Designed by an organization called Biohabitats, the slim wire structures contain recycled water bottles, and volunteers replant the 2,000 floating islands annually. The floating wetlands are deployed in the Inner Harbor to remind people of what existed before Baltimore industry replaced the area’s living shorelines with hard substrate. Natural wetlands act as a buffer between land + water; their plants remove pollution and store it in their roots and leaves while adding oxygen to the environment. The floating wetlands provide the same ecological services in the polluted water, also drawing life to their location in the harbor. Geese and ducks rest on the surface, while microorganisms and fish feed and seek shelter in the roots.
Another component of Healthy Harbor’s work involves working upstream from the Harbor in East Baltimore neighborhoods. Our Alley Makeover program focuses on working with residents to clean their streets and alleyways, using art as a component of the project. Additionally, Healthy Harbor partners with Baltimore Recreation and Parks and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to provide on-the-water experiences.
"When equipped with tools, resources and knowledge, people are the best solution for preventing trash from entering the Harbor."
hg: how can Baltimore area residents + businesses get involved in improving the waterways?
malia: first, engage in conversation. Talk to others about the issues in our waterways as well as steps we can all take to help find solutions. Second, volunteer! Join Healthy Harbor in our neighborhood cleanups or as an oyster gardener, or seek other opportunities that align with your interests. Third, recycle. Recycling may reduce your trash load in half, and keeps products out of landfills. Fourth, become a clean water advocate. Call or write letters to your legislators + influence local legislation that impacts our natural environment.