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Baltimore Prevents Over 3M Pounds of Trash Reaching Harbor, Stimulates Environmental Awareness

Baltimore, MD, USA

At a Glance

Baltimore needed a solution to prevent trash from being swept out to Baltimore Habor by the Jones Falls stream, a large source of pollution. Using water-wheel-powered technology, the city has collected over 3,520,000 pounds of trash from Jones Falls, reducing water pollution and increasing environmental awareness.

Problem Addressed

According to research, roughly eight million metric tons of plastic travel from land into the world’s oceans each year, mostly down rivers.

In April 2021, a research paper published by the journal Science Advances estimated that trash and pollution in more than 1000 rivers account for 80% of global annual emissions, with small urban rivers among the most polluting.

The Jones Falls Tributary, an 18-mile stream that flows through Baltimore and empties into the Harbor, has seen its fair share of trash. Enough trash accumulated in the harbor that it became a common observation for visitors to point out, particularly when it rained.

John Kellett, the former director of Baltimore’s Maritime Museum, used to cross a footbridge over Jones Falls every day on his way to work. Having spent twenty years working on the harbor, primarily in environmental education and shipbuilding, he spoke to city officials about the pollution and found that they would be interested in ideas for a potential solution.

City of Baltimore used/is using sustainably-powered trash collectors to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

What he came up with was a trash-collecting machine powered by an old-fashioned water wheel, to be installed at the mouth of the Jones Falls tributary where most of the harbor’s pollution originated. Created by Kellett’s company, Clearwater Mills, the project was built in 2014 and christened Mr. Trash Wheel. Mr. Trash Wheel is fifty feet long and weighs nearly 50 tons. The $700,000 project was funded by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which continues to own and operate the project.

Mr. Trash Wheel works by being placed at the end of a river or stream. Containment booms funnel trash into Mr. Trash Wheel’s mouth. Depending on the water current strength, Mr. Trash Wheel is either powered by its 14-foot water wheel, or an array of 30 solar panels to power pumps when the current is low. Mr. Trash Wheel’s rake lifts trash out of the water and onto the conveyor belt. When trash reaches the top of the conveyor belt, it falls into a dumpster on an adjacent barge. The most trash ever removed in a single day by Mr. Trash Wheel was 38,000 pounds, and since May 2014 over 1 million pounds of trash have been removed from the Jones Falls tributary.

Apart from preventing trash from polluting the harbor, the process has an added benefit to the city of Baltimore. Collected trash is transferred to the Baltimore City Department of Public Works which is incinerated to generate electricity. A future goal is to recycle the plastic Mr. Trash Wheel picks up but current sorting technologies are unable to separate the plastics from other trash.

To say that Mr. Trash Wheel took Baltimore by storm is an understatement. By 2019, three additional installments had popped up around Baltimore: Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, and Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West. Beyond the tangible benefits of removing trash from the city’s waterways, Mr. Trash Wheel has inspired greater awareness of pollution in the city. Baltimore now hosts a trash-wheel fan festival and is home to a society dedicated to promoting environmental awareness known as the Order of the Wheel. Outside of Baltimore, Mr. Trash Wheel’s beneficial work is shared and seen on social media where he reaches a significant social media presence with 22,000 thousand followers.

Outcomes

  1. Since Mr. Trash Wheel's inception, the city has prevented 3,520,000 pounds of trash from reaching Baltimore Harbor.
  2. The city found a sustainable way to collect trash from its waterways using renewable hydropower and solar power.
  3. The city has benefitted from media attention around Mr. Trash Wheel, as well as a surge in interest in environmental awareness.
  4. The success of Mr. Trash Wheel led Baltimore to implement three additional trash collectors at various waterways around the city.

Lessons Learned

  1. Although Mr. Trash Wheel doesn't eliminate sources of pollution, the project made city residents more aware that pollution begins, and can be prevented, in their neighborhoods.

Who Should Consider?

Cities or towns that want a renewable energy solution to cleaning their polluted waterways.

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