Science & Technology

Reinventing The Wheel

Baltimore’s trash wheels are more than just goofy, googly-eyed gimmicks.
Trash Wheel Hero
John Kellett in front of his trash-gobbling invention. - Brian Schneider

Baltimore was making a bad impression. John Kellett was sure of that. Walking to his job as the director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, his path took him across the footbridge connecting Harbor East and Pier Six. And most days, the Jones Falls flowing underneath looked like a conveyor belt of trash, full of debris sucked downstream from the river’s 40-square-mile watershed.

As an environmental scientist, marine educator, shipwright, sailor, and general Chesapeake Bay-niac, Kellett knew better than most how fouled local waterways were. But it still pained him to see the region’s economic and cultural anchor so degraded. And he could tell that others noticed, too.

“Every day, I’d hear the tourists say, ‘Ugh, this harbor is full of trash. It’s disgusting,’” he recalls, now more than a decade removed from this galvanizing moment. “And I actually called the city and said, ‘We have to do something about this.’ And they said, ‘Well, we’re open to ideas.’”

In truth, the city was trying to do something. It’s just that its efforts weren’t particularly effective. A boom had been installed at the mouth of the Jones Falls to corral debris. But every time it rained, trash would overwhelm the boom and escape into the harbor. Once the trash was in the harbor, the city would sometimes send out trash-skimming boats. But these boats were able to gather only a small fraction of the trash at a time, and they required human operators, making them costly to run.

There had to be a better way, Kellett reasoned, so he began brainstorming. Then he hit upon an idea so simple that he couldn’t believe it hadn’t been tried before.

“All you really need to do is get the trash out of the water and put it somewhere where it can be transported,” he explains. “So it sort of dawned on me that we could use the flow of the river that brings the trash as the power to pick the trash out of the river. And that’s where the idea of the waterwheel came from.”

Twelve years and a few pairs of googly eyes later, Kellett’s crude waterwheel idea has begat three lean, green, trash-collecting machines known to Baltimoreans as Mr. Trash Wheel, Professor Trash Wheel, and Captain Trash Wheel. Stationed throughout the Inner Harbor at the outflows of the Jones Falls, Harris Creek, and a stream in Masonville Cove, respectively, these contraptions function much as Kellett envisioned: Booms funnel trash toward the “mouth” of the machine while the current, supplemented by solar-powered motors, turns a wheel. Power from the wheel then activates a conveyor belt, which, in turn, slowly lifts the trash out of the water and drops it into a dumpster. The trash is then transported by the city and burned in the incinerator, generating electricity. It’s remarkably low-tech—and remarkably effective. Collectively, the trash wheels have removed more than 859 tons of trash from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor since 2014.

But what Kellett couldn’t envision when he conceived of the trash wheels was just what a source of fascination they would become. Thanks to savvy marketing and the public’s hunger for environmental success stories, the machines have attracted the kind of following usually reserved for human celebrities—or at least Apple products.

Besides glowing coverage in outlets ranging from NPR and National Geographic to Business Insider and Gizmodo, the trash wheels have accrued tens of thousands of followers on their various social media accounts. Additionally, they have inspired two local beers, several novelty T-shirts (“Stay Trashy, Baltimore,” “Feel the Churn”), a holiday sweatshirt (“Trashing Through the Snow”), a theme song, and, as of this spring, an official do-gooding fan club (The Order of the Wheel). In short, they have become the region’s most unlikely aquatic icons since soft-shell crabs.

“It’s kind of become a national and international sensation, which is not what I expected,” admits Kellett, a 55-year-old father of two with a laconic drawl and steely blue eyes. “I thought, ‘Hey, we’re going to clean up Baltimore Harbor and try to make a difference right here.’ It’s sort of like, ‘Act locally, think globally’—although I wasn’t even thinking globally. I had global thinking thrust upon me.”

Most days, you can find John Kellett puttering around Locust Cove Marina, the tiny boatyard he and his wife, Pamela, co-own in Pasadena. Here, amongst the clutter of boats, trailers, and assorted spare parts, is the headquarters of Clearwater Mills, the company Kellett founded soon after his a-ha moment in 2006. These days, business is booming. There is talk of a fourth trash wheel for the city, to be stationed where the Gywnns Falls empties into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco. And beyond Baltimore, there are projects brewing in locales from New York City to Newport Beach, California.

But Kellett acknowledges that arriving at this point was not easy. After his initial flash of inspiration, he constructed a six-foot-long working model that he tested in the Inner Harbor. He invited employees from then-mayor Martin O’Malley’s office and the Department of Public Works out to see it, and they agreed it had potential.

“So it sort of dawned on me that we could use the flow of the river that brings the trash as the power to pick the trash out of the river.”

“They looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, it’s a pretty cool idea, but since it has never been done before, we don’t feel like we can finance an experiment,’” Kellett recalls. So Kellett went in search of funding, landing in front of Bob Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, the area’s largest private foundation with a focus on funding local projects. A meeting with Embry went well, although Kellett wasn’t so sure at first. “I thought he was thoroughly unimpressed, but, the next day, I got a call saying, ‘We’d like to work it out so we can finance your idea.’”

Behind his poker face, Embry says he saw the project as “an appealing experiment” with “the potential to be marketed to other cities.” He offered Kellett $375,000 to build a prototype with the agreement that, if it were successful, the city would purchase it and the Abell Foundation would recoup its investment.

Kellett and his business partner, Daniel Chase, built the first full-scale trash wheel in six months, producing a 32-foot-long contraption with the machine’s inner workings concealed underneath a shed-like structure.

It made its inauspicious debut in the Jones Falls in February 2008. “The prototype didn’t receive a tremendous amount of attention,” Kellett remembers. “People thought it was kind of interesting, but they didn’t think it was any big deal.”

Included in the not “any big deal” camp were some members of city government, who felt that the trash wheel was underperforming and unreliable. Kellett, meanwhile, argued it was performing admirably, given that it was handling approximately four times more trash than had been anticipated.

After eight months, the city relocated the trash wheel to the outflow of the Harris Creek in Canton—a move Kellett likened to putting it out to pasture—and a years-long tussle about its efficacy ensued.

Kellett refers to this time as “the lean years.” Still, he never lost faith in his invention. And he had some key allies in his corner.

Among those allies was the team at Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a nonprofit that promotes the Inner Harbor and its adjacent neighborhoods.

“They said, ‘This machine is doing a great job. We’ve never seen the harbor cleaner. We want a waterwheel back at Jones Falls,’” Kellett recalls. So in 2013, armed with lessons learned from the prototype and $750,000 in funding from various public and private sources—including Waterfront Partnership—Kellett and Chase set out to reinvent the trash wheel. (Waterfront Partnership owns and operates both Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel. Captain Trash Wheel is owned and operated by the Maryland Port Administration.) They added more heft (wooden and plastic dock floats were replaced by steel pontoons), more solar panels (three panels ballooned to 30), and, with the help of Ziger/Snead Architects, adopted a sleeker, more eye-catching design. Gone was the Unabomber cabin-ish garden shed. The new model was all exoskeleton, a primitivism that somehow read as futuristic.

On May 9, 2014, the new-and-improved trash wheel went into the Jones Falls next to Pier Six. Two weeks later, it was famous.

Adam Lindquist just wanted to make a little video. As director of Waterfront Partnership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, Lindquist leads efforts to make the Inner Harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020, and he wanted his family and friends to see his newest pollution-fighting tool. So on May 16, 2014, he climbed aboard the trash wheel and filmed a short clip of it in action.

“I put it up on my YouTube page, and over the course of a week, that video went to number one on Reddit and received over a million views,” Lindquist says, still incredulous four years later. “It was at that point that we realized that we need to do something more to capture the viral nature of the device.”

Waterfront Partnership solicited ideas from local marketing agencies. One firm, What Works, suggested anthropomorphizing the trash wheel and giving it a Twitter account. One of the company’s then-employees assumed the Mr. Trash Wheel persona, and on July 15, 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel sent his first tweet: “I love it when kayakers come visit me in the Harbor! Just don’t get too close or you could end up in my belly!” (Since 2015, Robyn Stegman has been the voice of Mr. Trash Wheel. She now voices Professor Trash Wheel, too.)

The feeds provide a steady stream of water quality factoids, silly memes (Mr. Trash Wheel wielded a lightsaber on Star Wars Day), and cheerfully irreverent asides (“Do people really still drink diet root beer? If you’re going to litter, please send something tastier.”)

And, occasionally, internet gold just falls into their laps.

Headlines ensued after the trash wheel picked up a live ball python in August 2015. A few months later, a drawing of the trash wheel sporting a pair of googly eyes proved so popular that Waterfront Partnership added the peepers to the actual machine. In 2017, inspired by the snake incident, Peabody Heights Brewery created Mr. Trash Wheel’s Lost Python Ale, with proceeds benefiting the Healthy Harbor Initiative.

On May 9, 2014, the new-and-improved trash wheel went into the Jones Falls next to Pier Six. Two weeks later, it was famous.

“We keep thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve got our 15 minutes of fame,’” says Kellett, “But we’ve had that like a dozen times. You never know where it’s going to come from.”

With each new round of publicity comes another chance to raise money, discourage pollution, and improve water quality.

Waterfront Partnership keeps a running tally of the debris collected by the wheels on its website. So far, the machines have munched more than 10 million cigarette butts, 796,214 polystyrene cups, and 852,261 chip bags—among other items.

Having such exact data has been useful for policymakers, says Del. Brooke Lierman, who represents much of waterfront Baltimore in the 46th District and has spent the past two legislative sessions championing a statewide ban of expanded polystyrene foam food containers. Though a statewide ban has yet to pass, Montgomery County, Prince George’s County, and Baltimore City have approved local bans.

“The trash wheels make understanding the amount of trash more accessible. . . . That is an important part of proving to skeptical policymakers that there’s a real need to act,” says Lierman.

Because the trash wheels are such effective anti-littering ambassadors, there is a small chance that they could one day render themselves obsolete. Until then though, Kellett and others are happy to have them.

“To see the trash come down the river . . . and realize that before this machine was in, that trash would have been scattered around the harbor,” Kellet says. “That’s really rewarding.”