Mr. Trash Wheel, Keep on Turning

April 11, 2016


The way John Kellett came up with his idea for cleaning up Baltimore’s inner harbor was not that unique.

In fact, the beginning of this story might even sound cliché. There was a cocktail napkin, a common problem recognized and engineering experience. Yet while what Kellett sketched on that napkin was simple, it was anything but trite. Most importantly, it would work.

Kellet is the brains behind a one-of-a-kind wheel now spinning in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, ridding Jones Falls River of hundreds of tons of trash every year.

“Having worked in the harbor for years, he’d watched the river carry a huge amount of trash,” said Adam Lindquist, director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative at the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. “He discovered a way to harness that current to pick up the trash before it made its way into the Chesapeake Bay.”


The novel invention marries centuries old technology – the water wheel – with new – solar panels.

The flow of the river turns the wheel. The wheel picks up trash from the water and places it in a dumpster. When the current isn’t strong enough, the solar panels keep the machine running.

Since 2014, more than 221,000 plastic bottles, 284,000 Styrofoam containers, 7 million cigarette butts, 4,000 glass bottles, 138,000 plastic grocery bags, 204,000 chip bags, and one West African Ball Python have been gathered.

“The numbers are updated on a monthly basis,” said Lindquist.

A time lapse video on YouTube shows it all climbing up the wheel rung after rung. The grand total thus far is somewhere around 384 tons.

“We’ve seen all sorts of crazy things,” said Lindquist. “A storm washed the snake down the river and it grabbed onto the first thing it found. He was actually quite friendly.”

Jones Falls begins as a stream in Baltimore County and then fed by other streams until becoming a small river. The water wheel sits at its end. Most of the trash collected from the 40 square miles of the Jones Falls Watershed is collected after rain storms.

“Our storm drains go directly to our streams,” said Lindquist. “Anything that goes down them ends up in our harbor. It’s important that people understand that.”

While Kellett calls his invention a “Waterwheel Powered Trash Interceptor,” that’s a mouthful for what most call “Mr. Trash Wheel.”

The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore has taken the anthropomorphism to a whole new level in efforts to engage and educate the city about water pollution.

Mr. Trash Wheel has his own Twitter account, with more than 5,000 followers. Someone has photo shopped eyes onto it. He comments on current events and movies, tells jokes, advocates for a plastic bag ban, and gives updates on how much trash he’s picked up.

“All the plastic bags I collected could make 27 hot air balloons,” says one tweet. “RIP” accompanies a doctored photo of the wheel dressed like David Bowie.

“This online persona is basically a fun way to make a sad and depressing topic a point of conversation and elevate the problem of litter in public dialogue,” said Lindquist. “The citizens of Baltimore have historically not felt connected to the Baltimore Harbor. We work to change that by creating an engaging icon and reminding people of their connection to the waterways.”

Mr. Trash Wheel is unique only to Baltimore, but Kellett’s company Clearwater Mills, Inc. has begun conversations in Singapore and Rio de Janeiro.

“There is a lot of interest in getting these to more people and places around the world,” said Lindquist.

Yet even while he says that, Lindquist is working on getting another in Baltimore. A crowdfunding campaign to raise the half a million dollars it would take was already underway, with 40 percent of the lofty goal earned.

“People always want to know if we build another one, if it’s going to be Mrs. Trash Wheel,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve come to a conclusion about that yet.”


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