Local Hero: The Mr. Trash Wheel Story

By John O. Sullivan

Four years and a week ago, a small water wheel was installed at the mouth of the Jones Falls, a river which feeds Baltimore’s inner harbor. It is fairly unimpressive looking to the untrained eye, but it has become a local celebrity and even a national figure for powerful change. Its name is Mr. Trash Wheel, and it’s job is simple: “eating trash, saving the world.”

It’s a big dream for a small wheel, to be sure. But where did it all start?

Mr. Trash Wheel was the brain child of a Baltimorean named John Kellet, an employee at the Baltimore Maritime Museum. The concept is genius in its simplicity. A string of buoys funnel floating trash to the wheel, which operates on the power of the river’s current and solar power. The turning wheels power a trash conveyor belt into Mr. Trash Wheel’s “mouth,” feeding it into a pair of dumpsters for easy removal and proper disposal.

The project has been a massive success. It has been pulling a massive amount of trash from the river in the name of advancing the Healthy Harbor goal of having a swimmable and fishable Inner Harbor by 2020. Mr. Trash Wheel proved to be a relatively cheap and effective solution to pollution in the harbor, collecting a truly disgusting 1 million pound of trash from the Jones Falls in its first two and a half years. As a result, the Trash Wheel family grew. Professor Trash Wheel, a green-eyed long lashed lady-wheel, has guarded the mouth of Harris Creek, not far from my former home in Canton, since late 2016, and spouts family friendly trash-related science nuggets from her popular twitter page. Most recently, the third member of the family, Captain Trash Wheel, was installed in his new home outside the Environmental Education Center at Masonville Cove.

However the reason for Mr. Trash Wheel’s fame was not his remarkable efficiency. Yes, believe it or not, people are rarely excited for municipal projects, regardless of the efficiency. The true breakthrough moment came in 2015, when the wheel’s maintainers installed a pair of gigantic googly eyes, giving it a cute, if somewhat ridiculous, appearance. Since then, the project has skyrocketed in popularity to reach its current local celebrity status with over 16k twitter followers. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s relentlessly personable social media approach, including a reddit-topping AMA has had the effect of increasing fundraising returns, making it easier to spread their message and to raise funds for future family members.

As a group, the Trash Wheels have collected over 1.5 Million pounds of trash from Baltimore’s rivers since May, 2014. This includes almost 10 million cigarette butts, almost 750,000 each of chip bags and Styrofoam containers, and over 600,000 plastic bottles.

Truly, we should be absolutely disgusted with ourselves.

As the world’s ocean trash problem becomes more and more of a pressing matter, it is important that we strive for not only comprehensive, but inventive solutions, and Mr. Trash Wheel fits that bill. Over 90% of ocean trash travels there on rivers from inland sources. So while a trio of tweeting, googly-eyed, anthropomorphized, trash wheels in a small city in the Mid Atlantic might not seem like much, it’s a step in the right direction. We aren’t going to solve this problem until we attack it at the source.

So this one’s for you, Mr. Trash Wheel. We owe you one, hon.

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