Mr. Trash Wheel

Baltimore Harbor bustled with shipyards, canneries and steel manufacturing for most of its history. Heavy industry disappeared by the 1970’s, leaving behind a blighted waterfront with empty warehouses, parking lots and not much else. In the 1980’s Baltimore Harbor was redeveloped. Today it is home to restaurants, museums, shops and parks that attract 10 million visitors each year.

Baltimore Harbor was transformed into a thriving, beautiful destination, except after heavy rains. That’s when the detritus of modern, urban life washed into the Harbor. Plastic bottles, styrofoam containers and cigarette butts bobbed on the surface, giving the water a walkable appearance on bad days.

John Keller was director of Baltimore Maritime Museum at the time and would look out from his office on an old Coast Guard ship docked in the Harbor. After every rain, he would watch trash wash in, and then see the tourists react to the trash with disgust. It was an ugly problem, and Keller thought hard about solving it.

Baltimore City had skimmer boats that crisscrossed the Harbor and scooped up trash. These helped, but Keller knew that to make a noticeable difference trash would have to be captured where it was most concentrated. The trash did not come, as many believed, from careless boaters and visitors to the waterfront. It came from a much wider area. Jones Falls River is the largest tributary to Baltimore Harbor. It drains an area of 40 square miles of rural countryside, at it’s outer reaches, to heavily urbanized land closer to the Harbor. Keller had been to the mouth of Jones Falls River during a rainstorm and knew that this was the place to intercept trash.

In 2008, Keller installed a prototype trash wheel in the mouth of the Jones Falls River. A floating boom stretched across the river and funneled trash towards his invention. Water flow turned a paddle wheel, which was attached to a metal rake and a conveyor belt. The rake captured debris and deposited it on the slowly moving conveyor. The conveyor lifted the trash and emptied it into a dumpster on an adjacent barge. When full, the dumpster of trash was brought to a waste-to-energy plant and incinerated.

It worked. The harbor was visibly cleaner. However, the amount of trash that flowed down Jones Falls had been vastly underestimated. A bigger, stronger, faster version was needed, but this took money, which the City of Baltimore did not have. Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative stepped in to help raise the funds. His organization’s goal is to make the Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and the trash wheel would help.

A permanent trash wheel was installed in 2014. It works the same way the prototype did, but better. This trash wheel has solar panels to move the conveyor when water flow is sluggish. It can be operated remotely, which is nice in a storm. Perhaps the biggest improvement to the new trash wheel is its big pair of googly eyes. The googly eyes transformed the trash wheel into Mr. Trash Wheel, and he quickly became a media star. Now thousands of people from around the world follow Mr. Trash Wheel on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. There is even a live feed so fans can check Mr. Trash Wheel’s progress from afar.

A year ago, Mr. Trash Wheel was joined by a long-lashed female friend on Harris Creek, Professor Trash Wheel. Harris Creek is fed by storm drains. Plastic trash that slips through these drains is nabbed by Professor Trash Wheel before it enters the Harbor.

The trash wheel duo is making a huge, measurable improvement: 1.8 million pounds of trash have been removed since 2014. Keller and Lindquist say trash wheels are an immediate solution to an immediate situation. They are not, though, the answer to our ocean plastic problems. BlueTube is not the answer either, but like trash wheels, it helps right now. When we learn how to use plastic wisely, we can solve our ocean plastic problem. In the meantime, we do what we can. Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up plastic. Throw it away. Add your clean, used bags so others can help too.