Journal of Ocean Technology: Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel


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Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel

By Adam Lindquist, Director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative

Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore

The Healthy Harbor Initiative

In 2009 the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore launched a campaign to make the Baltimore Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. Known as the Healthy Harbor Initiative, the campaign is a unique partnership between environmental nonprofits, City government, community leaders and waterfront businesses. One impact of setting such an aggressive goal is that, rather than waiting for governments and regulators to make infrastructure improvements that eventually lead to cleaner water, the partnership is driven to find more immediate and innovative solutions. In 2011 the Healthy Harbor Initiative planted 2,000 square feet of floating wetlands in the Inner Harbor and in 2013 began growing over 100,000 spat (baby oysters) in the Harbor with the goal of planting five million by 2020.

In May 2014, the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore made history when it installed the world’s first solar and hydro powered trash interceptor in the Jones Falls, a river that flows into the Inner Harbor. John Kellett, a local man who was tired of seeing trash flow into the Baltimore Harbor during rainstorms, invented the device known as Mr. Trash Wheel. Kellett had the ingenious idea of combining new and old sustainable technologies to cleanly and efficiently collect trash at the end of the river before it reaches the open waters of the Baltimore Harbor and Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Trash Wheel’s primary engine is a 14 foot steel water wheel powered by the current of the river. Water wheels have been around for hundreds of years and powered much of Baltimore’s mill industry throughout the 1800’s in factories along the banks of the Jones Falls. Instead of powering a mill, the water wheel powers a rake and conveyor system that pulls floating litter and debris from the river and deposit it into a dumpster barge. The Trash Wheel also has an array of thirty solar panels to power pumps that pump water onto the wheel so that the machine can continue to operate even when the current of the river is slow. During a large rainstorm these two systems work in tandem to give the machine the strength it needs to collect anything that floats down the river, from a single cigarette butt to an entire tree.

Waterfront Partnership (a nonprofit) raised the $750,000 needed to hire Kellett’s company, Clearwater Mills, to design, build and install the device and has an ongoing contract with them for operation and maintenance. Funding came from two main sources: the Maryland Port Administration and Constellation, a subsidiary of Exelon headquartered in Baltimore. The Baltimore City Department of Public Works helps to pay for the ongoing operation cost with funds raised by the City’s stormwater remediation fee established by State law in 2012.

Cleaning up the Baltimore Harbor

In its first 22 months of operation the Trash Wheel has picked up 127 dumpsters full of trash and debris adding up to a total of 420 tons. The public is invited to track its trash collection online at and can even download a spreadsheet detailing the composition of each individual dumpster. Clearwater Mills samples the dumpsters to estimate the number of each major item of litter collected. As of March 2016 this included 247,520 plastic bottles, 316,789 polystyrene containers and 7.3 million cigarette butts. This data is then used to educate the public and elected officials about the impact that trash has on local waterways and to support legislation aimed at reducing litter.

The majority of trash and debris is collected during significant rain events because that is when trash from streets and alleys is carried into storm drains, which flow unfiltered into the City’s streams and Harbor. During periods of drought the Trash Wheel may not operate at all, but during a particularly strong storm in June 2015 it filled twelve dumpsters in 24 hours.

Once a dumpster is filled a boat transports it to shore and an empty dumpster barge is put in place. The trash is taken to a waste-to-energy plant where it is burned to generate power for Maryland homes. While a handful of other cities collect and burn marine debris, like fishing nets, to generate energy, Baltimore is the only city in the world generating power from litter intercepted in urban waterways. Each ton of trash can power up to 16 households for a day. Since Waterfront Partnership began sending trash to the incinerator, garbage collected by the Trash Wheel has generated enough electricity to power 3,365 homes.

Trash and organic matter aren’t the only things the Trash Wheel has collected. In August 2015 a five-foot ball python, native to West Africa, was found wrapped around the machine’s power inverter. Likely somebody’s lost pet snake, it was removed by the National Aquarium and adopted out to a good home. Other items of note include a beer keg, a hula-hoop and a pint of still frozen strawberry ice cream. Fish, eels, ducklings and other wildlife also find their way on to the conveyor, but the machine moves slowly enough that wildlife can get out of the way before ending up in the dumpster.

Going viral

Soon after its installation, a short handheld video of the Trash Wheel operating during a rainstorm went viral online and to date has accumulated nearly 1.5 million views. To capitalize on the growing interest in the device, Waterfront Partnership developed a unique social media marketing strategy. Working with What Works Studio, a creative agency in Baltimore, Mr. Trash Wheel was born. Initially just a photo of the Trash Wheel with a pair of eyeballs added digitally, Mr. Trash Wheel soon developed his own personality and Internet following on several popular social media platforms.

Mr. Trash Wheel loves eating tires, but hates broccoli. He loves NASA and dreams of one day visiting outer space to help clean up the trash orbiting our planet. He is literally the world’s biggest Star Wars fan and was inconsolable when he realized he was too large to fit into a theater to see The Force Awakens. He is friends with Baltimore Harbor wildlife, a lifelong fan of the Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles and promoter of all that is great about his city. Mr. Trash Wheel fans proudly wear “Keepin’ It Wheel” t-shirts and have even dressed up like him for Halloween.

Mr. Trash Wheel has become something of a local celebrity, whose antics are frequently covered by Baltimore media and sometimes even national media including NBC News, National Geographic and National Public Radio. Twice Waterfront Partnership has hosted an Ask Me Anything event on popular website Reddit, where thousands of people from around the world ask Mr. Trash Wheel questions about how he works, his social life and his personal opinions. All of this interest in Mr. Trash Wheel’s has resulted in over 4.9 million social media impressions on Twitter and Facebook.

Millions of views and impressions are evidence of a successful social media campaign, but how does that success translate to a cleaner Baltimore Harbor? By being a source of entertainment first and the mascot for an environmental movement second, Mr. Trash Wheel has the ability to reach an audience who may not have previously considered the impact of their waste. An example of such a transformation is this story, relayed to Mr. Trash Wheel by a fan:

“I was hanging out with some friends after a fitness class the other night and I noticed that one of them was wearing one of the Mr. Trash Wheel ‘Keepin’ it Wheel’ t-shirts. I’d never known her to have an interest in the environment before, so I commented on it. She was very enthusiastic, talking about how funny he is on Twitter and how much she loved his Reddit Ask Me Anything. And then she said that it’s caused her to be much more serious about recycling (she said she’s a ‘fanatic’ now) and to think about trash a lot more. It’s so awesome to see the impact that a personal connection (via googly eyes and a Twitter feed) can have on behavior change.”

Another impact of the Mr. Trash Wheel campaign has been on Waterfront Partnership’s fundraising efforts to further the Healthy Harbor mission. In June 2015 Waterfront Partnership launched a crowd-funding campaign ( to build the world’s second Trash Wheel at another Baltimore stream known for carrying tons of trash into the Baltimore Harbor each year.

$550,000 is needed to build this second slightly smaller Trash Wheel and, thanks to the popularity Mr. Trash Wheel, over 80% of these funds have been raised via donations from Baltimore businesses, foundations and individuals. Waterfront Partnership hopes to complete their fund raising and have the new Trash Wheel installed by the end of 2016.

What’s next for Mr. Trash Wheel?

Many organizations struggle to integrate social media into their outreach strategies. When done poorly it can be a waste of time or worse. Mr. Trash Wheel is a clear example of an organization harnessing the power of social media to further its mission and raise awareness of its cause. Of course it all started with John Kellett’s incredible invention, but by actively participating in online culture and inviting the public to join in the fun, the Mr. Trash Wheel project has created a fandom of individuals who want to be a part of a positive story about cleaning up the environment.

Waterfront Partnership’s approach of embracing social media along with all its quirks and chaos has helped Baltimore to reframe a negative issue into a positive one. Public opinion is evolving. Where residents once talked about how hopelessly polluted the Baltimore Harbor has become, they are now starting the believe that its restoration is possible and imagine that maybe one day they might even join Mr. Trash Wheel for a swim.

Clearwater Mills fields weekly requests from cities around the world that want to know how to bring a Mr. Trash Wheel to their own rivers and streams. The company has visited Rio de Janeiro and Bali as well as a number of cities throughout the United States. It’s only a matter of time before this technology is implemented in other places, but whether those Trash Wheels are given personalities and social media accounts will be up to the people living there. As for the gender and personality of Baltimore’s second Trash Wheel, Waterfront Partnership has refused to disclose any details until its fundraising is complete.

Waterfront Partnership continues to find new ways to use Mr. Trash Wheel as an engagement and outreach tool. Last fall an online petition appeared asking that permanent eyeballs be installed on the device. “These googly eyes could save the planet,” the petitioner proudly proclaimed. 1,500 signatures later, Waterfront Partnership responded by reaching out to Key Tech, a local technology solutions company. Key Tech donated time and materials to build and install five-foot tall eyeballs on the device along with LEDs to light them up at night. Now, when people visit Mr. Trash Wheel they don’t just see an incredible invention, they see a mascot fighting to clean up the Baltimore Harbor and, maybe one day, the oceans of the world.