Trash Talk

In Baltimore, a school of large-mouth garbage gobblers is keeping the harbor clean. We should reel one in right here in River City.
Mr. Trash Wheel
Mr. Trash Wheel has stolen the hearts (and garbage) of Baltimoreans since 2014. (Photo courtesy of @edgardavisp via Instagram)

The Idea

For Baltimoreans, their harbor has long been a point of civic pride. But while serving as the director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, John Kellett would walk by the harbor on his way to work every day and notice that it was filling with trash at an alarming rate. It got him wondering what could be done about it. 

Kellett spent years designing a floating contraption capable of scooping up large volumes of litter in the harbor. By 2014, his “waterwheel-powered trash interceptor”—or Mr. Trash Wheel—was slurping up gobs of garbage on its conveyor belt tongue. This past June, Charm City welcomed its fourth aquatic omnivore, Gwynnda the Good Wheel of the West. Kellett expects Gwynnda—like the others, positioned where trash-filled tributaries feed into the harbor—to ingest about 90 tons of trash (most of which is plastic) annually.

Now he’s working on designs for Fort Worth, Panama City and Newport Beach. 

Meanwhile, Sacramento has struggled with a growing garbage problem on our own namesake waterway. Last year, a sea lion was photographed alongside plastic bottles, and volunteers can’t keep up with the trash accumulating along the water’s edge—some of which degrades into microplastics and can make its way into the mouths of fish and other aquatic wildlife.

Keeping California’s longest river clean should be a priority for environmental reasons, but also because the city is trying hard to reconnect its citizenry with its waterfront, and a flotilla of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags isn’t going to help. 

But you know what just might? A Mr. Trash Wheel.

In Baltimore, it’s impossible to overstate how much the city has embraced its lovable anthropomorphic interceptors. Now there are Mr. Trash Wheel T-shirts, plush toys, ice cube molds and multiple craft beer labels. People even get Mr. Trash Wheel tattoos. 

But tributaries are one thing. Could Mr. Trash Wheel handle the currents of the mighty Sacramento River? Kellett is confident about the prospect. “We would have to do some investigation to determine whether it’s feasible,” he says, “but my guess is it could be engineered to work.”

The Players

Whenever it comes to doing anything in our rivers, the list of governmental agencies involved is long, and, shall we say… deliberative. In Panama City, Kellett is working with an environmental nonprofit, but in Fort Worth and Newport Beach, the effort is driven by the city governments. And one of his four wheels was partly crowdfunded by thousands of individuals. Our efforts could be led by the city, and funded by a multicounty effort. And the state should invest in any technology that cleans up one of California’s most vital waterways.

The Bottom Line

Kellett says that his machines have cost $400,000 to $800,000 each. And while steel prices have skyrocketed over the past year, Barron’s recently reported that some feel “steel prices will collapse in 2022.” In terms of operating costs, Kellett says they run $20,000 to $120,000 annually. Funding comes from the state, as well as private foundations, utility companies and others.

But ultimately, the real cost is the one to our rivers and the fish and crops they feed. And if Mr. Trash Wheel does nothing else, it raises critical public awareness. “The big impact is having people realize that they can be part of the answer to the problem,” says Kellett, “and that doing things on a personal and local level can make a difference.”



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