If you see a googly-eyed boat cruising through Baltimore's Inner Harbor, you aren't imagining things. First deployed in 2008, Mr. Trash Wheel has collected over 1,600 tons, or well over 3 million pounds, of trash.
"When it rains, trash gets washed into our storm drains, which don't get filtered, they go directly into our streams and our harbor," Adam Lindquist, the director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, told AccuWeather National Reporter Sarah Gisriel. "After a big rainstorm, we've picked up as many as fifteen dumpsters [worth of trash]."
According to Mr. Trash Wheel's official website, the wheel has collected over 760,000 plastic bags, 12 million cigarette butts, more than 1.3 million foam containers and more than 1.2 million plastic water bottles. Among the more eclectic items that have been collected are over 5,000 sports balls, a keg, a guitar and a live ball python; the latter later found a loving home through adoption.
The trash wheel's inventor, John Kellett, came up with the idea after working on the harbor for more than 20 years.
"When you grow up on a farm, you're always trying to problem solve, figure out a better way of doing things," Kellett told Gisriel. He had noticed that a tremendous flow of trash comes down, particularly after intense rainfalls. "I said, ‘we gotta do something about that,' because it didn't take a lot of looking into to understand that the trash isn't coming from people walking around the harbor."
The trash wheel often lurks at the mouth of the Jones Falls stream, scooping up trash before it disperses across the harbor and down into the Chesapeake Bay. Trash pours into the Inner Harbor from its tributaries, of which Jones Falls is the largest, after heavy rainstorms.
Linquist weighed in that plastic pollution is particularly problematic as microplastics get consumed by animals like crabs and fish, which humans then consume, so that plastic becomes part of the food chain.
To get the trash out of the water, Mr. Trash Wheel uses a massive rake to lift litter out of the lake and onto a conveyer belt. The conveyer belt, while slow-moving, can pick up all sorts of trash from the river, which then gets dumped into a dumpster that sits on a floating barge that is attached to the larger craft. The trash is incinerated to make electricity.
To not be a polluter itself, the wheel runs off of clean energy, powering itself through hydroelectric and solar power.
Mr. Trash Wheel sits docked in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, waiting for a rainstorm that will bring trash for him to collect (Courtesy MrTrashWheel.com).
"The weight of the water turns the wheel and it becomes our power source, so we are usually using a combination of both the flow of the river and the pumped water from the solar panels," Kellett said.
Mr. Trash Wheel's quirky nature, from its massive googly-eyes to its funny name, has helped it acquire a cult following. More than 23,000 people follow Mr. Trash Wheel on Instagram, and its fans are credited with helping to pass a ban on plastic bags in the city of Baltimore -- something that Mr. Trash Wheel's supporters hope will put Mr. Trash Wheel on a diet.
"They see what [Mr. Trash Wheel] is doing and see that it's making a difference, and then they come to realize they are part of the solution itself," Kellett said.
The ultimate goal though, Kellett explained, is to put Mr. Trash out of business.
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