John Kellett is a very surprised man. When he began thinking about doing something about the trash that flowed into Baltimore’s inner harbour whenever it rained, he had no idea that he would spawn a social media family with a worldwide following or find a way to help Baltimore’s residents turn garbage into electrical power.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have thought that this idea I sketched on a napkin would lead to all this.” At the same time, he looks at the success of the Trash Wheel Family as being a symptom of a disease, not a cure – the solution is for all of us to manage our waste sustainably and stop using so much plastic.
He used to walk to work over a footbridge over Jones Falls, the largest tributary feeding into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and whenever it rained, he would see a river of trash. He is a sailor and an engineer, with two decades of working on the harbour in environmental education and shipbuilding and his youth on a farm, however, made him uniquely equipped to come up with a solution.
He sketched out plans for a machine powered by an old-fashioned water wheel that would catch trash at the mouth of Jones Falls, the main source of harbor pollution. A prototype was installed in 2008, at a time when researchers were only starting to explore the problem of the plastic pollution of the world’s oceans.
It worked, but he quickly realized that something bigger was needed. The pilot wheel was often unable to pick up larger debris and had only one Dumpster, so when it was being emptied, the wheel had to wait for it to return before working again. However, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a local nonprofit organization that works on the harbor, noticed that trash in the harbour had been reduced, and it approached Kellett and offered to raise funds for a bigger trash wheel.
“No one knew what they were getting themselves into,” said Adam Lindquist, the director of the partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative.
By 2014, with $720,000 in public and private funds, Mr. Trash Wheel was born. It is 50 feet long, weighs nearly a hundred thousand pounds, and uses river and solar power to work. And it is a powerful gobbler of garbage – it once filled 12 Dumpsters with trash in the 48 hours after a particularly heavy storm.
It uses the current of the Jones Falls River (and solar panels when the river flow is low) to turn a water wheel which powers a conveyor belt. Containment booms move the trash towards the conveyor belt, which then drops the debris into a dumpster that sits on its own platform and can be floated out when it is full. On average, 70 to 100 dumpsters are filled a year.
The waste is burned to generate electrical power for Baltimore’s homes.
Through smartphone and internet, Kellett keeps track of the Trash Wheel operations and the kind of garbage that flows through them – information that is very useful to the city administration and the partnership. Learning that the Trash Wheels picked up an average of 14,000 Styrofoam containers a month, the partnership supported a bill to ban such containers, and the city passed legislation banning styrofoam use in food outlets in 2018.
The Healthy Harbor Initiative has also built floating wetland islands around the harbor, which provide habitats for ducks, herons, turtles and other aquatic species, and hosts an oyster partnership, where community members help cultivate juvenile oysters off their docks.
Early on, Mr. Trash Wheel got eyes, and a social media presence, after a creative agency was retained to carry out an online campaign, and he caught on in social media around the world. By 2017, a video of Mr. Trash Wheel had more than a million views on Youtube and a Twitter account had more than 9,000 followers.
“We did not foresee how positive the response was going to be,” said Lindquist. Mr. Trash Wheel became a stop on tours of the Inner Harbor. A public video feed is available online to watch what the trash wheel is picking up at any time. A local elementary school came to the harbor to celebrate Mr. Trash Wheel with a decorated car tire as a stand-in for a birthday cake.
“Mr. Trash Wheel helps to connect the dots and helps residents understand the impact of their actions,” said Rebecca Woods, executive director of Baltimore’s Environmental Control Board. “Mr. Trash Wheel provides a point of education for upstream efforts in helping residents understand what happens to trash that enters streets and then storm drains.”
Alice Volpitta, a water quality manager at Blue Water Baltimore, a nonprofit that does water testing and education, is happy that the Trash Wheels have brought so much attention to water quality. “Maybe the biggest benefit is letting people know it’s such a problem,” she said. “Not the tonnage of trash that Mr. Trash Wheel has collected.”
All the attention helped raise funds for Professor Trash Wheel, which was installed at the mouth of Harris Creek in December 2016. Support came from 600 groups and individuals from 36 states and a dozen different countries. Captain Trash Wheel was installed at Masonville Cove in June 2018.
In 2017, the partnership began fundraising to build the biggest ever Trash Wheel, to be stationed at the mouth of the Gwynns Falls, where it will intercept solid waste before the junk makes it to the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay. “We’ve had our googly eyes set on the Gwynns Falls for a long time,” said Lindquist. “An estimated 400 tons of litter and debris flow into the Middle Branch each year. This new trash wheel will mean cleaner shorelines and less plastic in the Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay.”
The partnership asked for the public’s help in naming the latest addition to the Trash Wheel family, Gwyndda the Good Wheel of the West.
The worldwide attention has meant that Kellett, who now runs a construction company to build the wheels, has been invited to do site surveys in Honolulu, Milwaukee, Atlanta, and Denver and internationally in Lombok, Indonesia, Panama City, and Rio de Janeiro.
Meanwhile, the Ocean Cleanup, a six-year-old Dutch technology nonprofit, says that its research shows that 80% of the plastic waste in the oceans comes from 1,000 rivers, and – much like the Trash Wheels – its ‘Interceptor’ plans to catch plastic from rivers before it enters the ocean.
But while technology is catching on, the best way to protect the oceans is for all of us to change our behaviour around waste, says Kellett. “I don’t think of the Trash Wheel as a solution. We are treating a symptom of the disease. It’s not a cure.”
The Promise of Mr. Trash Wheel. New Yorker, Nov. 6, 2019.
Mr. Trash Wheel is gobbling up millions of pounds of trash. CNET, Jun 14, 2021
Googly-Eyed Trash Eaters May Clean a Harbor Near You. National Geographic, Feb. 17 2017
Mr. Trash Wheel cleans up Baltimore Harbor with a dash of humor. PBS, Apr 9 2018
Solar-Powered Water Wheel Cleans Baltimore Harbor, NBC News, Oct 13 2014
Baltimore is getting a fourth googly eyed Trash Wheel, and it needs a name. Baltimore Sun Oct 28 2019