The Baltimore Harbor used to be so cluttered with trash that locals, like John Kellett, said you could almost walk across sections of the harbor. It was a sight the sailor and engineer saw every day for 20 years until he decided to meet with the city of Baltimore and offer a solution to clean up the waterway.
Kellett's solution is an eco-friendly, floating structure named "Mr. Trash Wheel." Powered by solar panels and water, Mr. Trash Wheel sits at the end of the Jones Falls River where the river's current turns a windmill-sized metal water wheel that rotates gears and chains to funnel garbage onto a conveyor belt and then into a dumpster. The idea is to detour drifting debris before it enters into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
After a failed prototype, the challenges were clear. The amount of trash was worse than was expected. So with the help of the Healthy Harbor Initiative by Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Kellett created a trash interceptor that would significantly reduce the amount of garbage during the initial phases of the cleanup project.
The performance pleased the director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, Adam Lindquist, who said, “Mr. Trash Wheel is a messenger for our campaign to reduce the amount of trash ending up in our streets and our harbor.” Lindquist says Mr. Trash Wheel encourages Baltimore to see his group's long-term goal when it comes to throwing away trash so the Charm City can have a clean harbor.
Inspired by his early days living and working on his parent’s farm in Virginia, Kellett's final design works similar to the tractor he would ride to collect hay in the fields. By combining old and new technologies, Mr. Trash Wheel has consumed more than 1.3 million pounds of garbage and debris since it was installed in the summer of 2014. It has pulled out of the water: 486,130 plastic bottles, 538, 989 chip bags, 590,817 polystyrene containers and over 9 million cigarette butts. That’s enough cigarette filters to stretch for 70 miles.
The amount collected on a daily basis depends on the weather. When it rains the trash is washed into streams and sewers which connects to the roughly 58-square-mile Jones Falls River watershed. Last April, 18 dumpsters were filled during a rainstorm. In January there was just one dumpster swapped out. On average, about 80 or so dumpsters are filled annually.
Here’s how it work. Everyday waste like soda cans and plastic bags litter the river and float downstream. Two floating containment booms and revolving forks help direct the debris onto the cranking conveyor belt that funnels the refuse into a dumpster. When the bins are full, the garbage is then hauled away and taken to an incinerator where it is generated into energy to power local homes.
“They used water wheels to power the industry of Baltimore for centuries.” Kellett said. “So, using that power of the river it was something that was done for a longtime were just putting it to a new use.”
But, it’s not always rubbish rounded up. Kellett has found his fair share of weird and unusual items in the dumpster. “We’ve picked up a guitar, we’ve picked up a kayak, we’ve picked up a beer keg.” He said. “But probably the most unusual thing is that we picked up a ball python that was obviously someone’s pet.”
His good deed for the community has gained worldwide attention and continues to be an attraction in the Inner Harbor, becoming a conversation piece with locals and visitors alike. A family from Connecticut checking out local colleges for their son, stopped to snap a few pictures with Mr. Trash Wheel and commented on the need for a clean up contraption for their state.
“Having it look cool and draw attention to it helps people understand the problem and helps people get inspired to do something about it,” said Kellett.
With a YouTube video that has more than a million views and over 12,000 Twitter followers, Mr. Trash Wheel has quite the digital footprint it can use to share its impactful message with the world.
Working to keep the waterways clean one rotation at a time, this gizmo is likely to go global to countries combating their own trash troubles. Places like Brazil, Panama, and Indonesia are reaching out for a version of their own.
“We’ve had calls or emails from well over 80 countries." Kellett said. "Our system is not designed to be the waste management system. You need to take care of the trash on land first and this is just to help supplement that.” According to Kellett, the technology is there and just needs to be customized for each environment.