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Mr. Trash Wheel collects washed-out trash after a rainstorm. Photo by Healthy Harbor Initiative

Mr. Trash Wheel cleans up Baltimore Harbor with a dash of humor

Mr. Trash Wheel is a googly-eyed, trash-skimming water wheel installed at the bottom of Jones Falls watershed, which empties into the Baltimore Harbor.

Home to the National Aquarium, various art and science museums and a bustling nightlife, the waterfront of the Baltimore Harbor has long been a massive tourist attraction for the Chesapeake Bay region.

The harbor itself? Not so much. Plastic, tires and other trash routinely flow into the harbor through the city’s storm sewers.

The Healthy Harbor Initiative for the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which has given the harbor a failing water quality grade every year since 2012, wants to make these waters swimmable by 2020.

Mr. Trash Wheel is the initiative’s most successful endeavour. Invented by Baltimore local John Kellett, it has collected more than 1.5 million pounds of trash since May 2014. It is powered by the harbor’s current and solar panels.

“We’ve picked up 16 dumpsters of trash during a single rainstorm,” Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, said at the 2018 Ocean Symposium at Duke University.

His organization decided early on to give the device a fun, mischievous personality. Lindquist said the team spends about 70 percent of its messaging time cultivating Mr. Trash Wheel’s image.

There are T-shirts, Halloween costumes and even local beers honoring him. Mr. Trash Wheel may soon cross borders; Kellet has conducted site surveys in Indonesia and Brazil. And the garbage wheel tweets – a lot

“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.”

Mr. Trash Wheel’s reach extends beyond his cozy harbor abode, she added:

“Residents in distant upstream communities that are sometimes thought to be disconnected from the harbor are beginning to want to be more involved with storm drain stewardship after becoming aware of Mr. Trash Wheel.”

Mr. Trash Wheel and the growing community around him have also caught the eye of the Baltimore City Council, which last month banned all styrofoam packaging from its food establishments.

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Plus, he now has a trash-guzzling cousin: Professor Trash Wheel. Located in the Canton neighborhood of Baltimore, Professor Trash Wheel features a smaller design with a quicker wheel that can handle the faster pace found in this part of the waterway, which is polluted with smaller bits of trash.

Trash Wheel is a common surname in the world of garbage collectors, said Lindquist, but the two are not related. Professor Trash Wheel, which was given a female persona and a “degree in trash studies” will meet Mr. Trash Wheel for the first time at the 3rd annual Baltimore Flotilla in June, another Healthy Harbor Initiative event.

Healthy Harbor Initiative has also built floating wetland islands around the harbor, which not only filter the water but provide habitats for ducks, herons, turtles and other aquatic species. The group also hosts an oyster partnership, where community members help cultivate juvenile oysters off of their docks.

On the weekends, Woods sometimes checks in on Mr. Trash Wheel with her son.

“Seeing trash and litter is devastating to my 7 year old, and he regularly tells people to pick up their trash when he sees someone litter,” Woods said. “Mr. Trash Wheel is that friendly face that provides my son comfort that trash will be blocked from entering the harbor. To my son, Mr. Trash Wheel is a hero.”

A version of this story appeared on Miles O’Brien Productions.

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