John Kellet, Clearwater Mills Founder, was dismayed by the pollution littering Baltimore harbour. Motivated to clean up the mess he spent two years developing, designing and building a hydro and solar powered trash-collecting wheel. Inspired by a hay bailer, the machine uses floating booms to trap debris in the water and push it up a moving conveyer belt where rubbish is photographed, recorded and collected ready for disposal. The prototype was appropriately named Mr Trash Wheel.
Over 500 dumpster loads (2,000 tons) of trash have been collected since 2014 when the first trash wheel was installed at the mouth of the Jones Falls. The contents of every dumpster load have been recorded with over one million plastic water bottles, 11 million cigarette butts, 500,000 plastic bags collected, as well other unexpected items like a tyre and even a guitar.
Data collected by Mr Trash Wheel is shared publicly via a website and is often submitted as testimony in support of legislation to reduce plastic pollution in waterways. Since the introduction of Mr Trash Wheel, Baltimore County has banned plastic bags and Maryland became the first US state to implement a ban on polystyrene takeaway containers in 2020.
Mr Trash Wheel and his family of wheels have not only helped bring about legislative change to improve the environment but have also attracted a devoted following. Baltimoreans have enthusiastically embraced the “Don't Feed Mr. Trash Wheel" message, taking part in harbourside performances, parades and paddling events. Some have even applied to become members of the ‘Order of the Wheel’, where they promise to reduce their reliance on single-use plastics and commit to cleaning up litter in the community.
Adam Lindquist, Vice President Healthy Harbor Initiative, Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore attributes the success of Mr Trash Wheel to this positive approach.
“I think Mr. Trash Wheel provides a sense of belonging for people who want to be part of a cause that is doing something very important but that also has a lot of fun doing it. It's easy to get bogged down by the scale of issues like climate change and plastic pollution,” Lindquist says.
“But Mr. Trash Wheel always stays positive and I think there's something very appealing about his can-do approach. Like, "come on, humans, you've got this!" He's really a cheerleader for humanity.”
This positive impact has even reached Panama, where a trash wheel has been installed to collect litter from Juan Díaz River. This river along with six others feed into the Panama Bay, used annually by nearly 1,000 humpback whales to nurse their young.
What a far-reaching impactful difference a positive idea backed by community and government support can make.
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