Mr Trash Wheel is a fantastic example of simplistic ingenuity, narrowmindedness of public administration and of course the size of the challenge we all face to eradicate the waste we create.
Back in 2014, John Kellett came up with an idea for removing waste from the rivers flowing into Baltimore harbour. It was a water powered wheel that would collect and remove upstream waste from the river (a ‘waterwheel-powered trash interceptor’).
The design was drawn on a napkin over Christmastime. John took the idea to city officials, but they rejected it on the grounds they hadn’t seen it done before and therefore didn’t feel they could fund an ‘experiment’.
Undeterred, John took it to a local philanthropic foundation, and they helped to fund a prototype. Then a non-profit organisation called the Healthy Harbor Initiative got on board. They committed to finding funding sources, with the Maryland Court Administration being a notable benevolent partner.
Fast forward six years and there are now three working wheels within the city, with a fourth on the way. Other similar water wheels are now in development for Panama and California.
How does it work?
The wheels operate entirely through renewable energy. Firstly, the flow of the river itself generates some of the power to turn the wheel. When that’s not sufficient, solar energy is used to power water pumps. This makes it a fully zero carbon solution.
What waste does it collect?
The wheel essentially collects anything and everything. It’s collected in excess of 13 million cigarette butts.
The city has used that data to support anti-smoking campaigns – informing of how many times the butts laid end-to-end would span the length of the river.
It’s also collected all manner of typical waste from plastic cups to foam containers. It’s even collected an acoustic guitar and a Ball Python snake!
With significantly less waste collecting in the harbour, the natural environment is greatly benefitting from less polluted waters. There are now around two hundred thousand oysters residing safely in the harbour.
They’re able to create behaviour change and inform government policy. The learning from Mr Water Wheel led the city of Baltimore to ban foam containers in 2018. Following on from that, Maryland went on to become the first state of America to place a ban on all Styrofoam containers.
The wheels make fantastic education tools. They’re now used to inform the city and its wider region on the impact of improper waste disposal on our ecosystems. It’s also created significant community engagement.
Aside from connecting its residents to the waterways, a raft of volunteers has come forward to help in segregating and recycling/disposing of the waste items.
The wheels naturally add to the region from a tourism perspective. People now actively come to the area to see the wheels at work and they were specifically designed to hold appeal and create positive interest.
A secret society
There’s now a secret society of trash wheel fans in Baltimore called The Order of the Wheel. Each year, residents of Baltimore are invited to pledge to become members of the society.
In order to be accepted into it, they must complete five challenges, all related to cleaning up the environment. If they complete all five of the tasks, they get to join. It currently has about 4,000 members.
A safe solution for aquatic life
The wheels have been designed in a way that whilst they pick up a lot of waste at a time, it’s done slowly. This crucially means that they don’t pick up live fish or other marine life from the water. In fact, the fish quickly realise that the water is drying up underneath them as they get onto the conveyor and just swim off.
The harbour itself is now full of life. One of the bi-products from turning the wheel is it providing additional oxygen into the water. So when the harbour is low on oxygen on a hot summer day, the fish and other aquatic life will gather around the oxygen-rich area near the water wheel.
A place to swim
One of the goals of the wider initiative was to make Baltimore harbour safe for swimming and fishing by 2020. Before Mr Trash Wheel was introduced, after a heavy rainstorm, the harbour resembled a huge island of massive waste. The plan is to host a swim event in the Baltimore harbour in the summer of 2021.
The wider impact
John believes that the ultimate objective must be to stop the flow of trash into the oceans.
However, the challenge of building and transporting a huge water wheel to a river is challenging enough, but when you try to do that to the middle of the ocean, the costs go up exponentially. And of course, the capture rate goes down because in an ocean, most of the waste does not end up in the wheel.
John concedes it’s too late to get it once you’re out in the middle of the ocean. You’ve therefore got to stop it at source. If we are able to turn off the flow now, then we could start thinking about how to dispose of the legacy stuff that’s out in the ocean. “You don’t start mopping your floor while your tub is still overflowing”.
How we are addressing plastic waste
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Thanks to the Nothing Wasted podcast on Waste360.com for the source of this post. And a big thanks to John and Adam Lindquist, Director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, for solving a problem we all create.