Sponsored By

Meet Mr. Trash Wheel (Transcript)

April 6, 2020

36 Min Read

[00:00:00] Liz Bothwell: Hi everyone, welcome to Waste360's NothingWasted! Podcast. On every episode, we invite the most interesting people in waste recycling and organics to sit down with us and chat candidly about their thoughts, their work, this unique industry and so much more. Thanks for listening and enjoy this episode.


[00:00:26] Liz: Hi, everyone. This is Liz Bothwell from Waste360 with Adam Lindquist and John Kellett, they're the masterminds behind Baltimore's beloved, Mr. Trash Wheel. Welcome, Adam and John, thanks for being on the show today.

[00:00:39] John and Adam: Thanks for having us.

[00:00:40] Liz: I'll start with you, John, can you please introduce yourself and tell our listeners a little bit more about the Mr. Trash Wheel and his origin story?

[00:00:49] John Kellett: Sure. My name is John Kellett and my background was that I worked on Baltimore Harbor for about 20 years in a variety of capacities. I was the director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum. On a daily basis, I was confronted with the fact that the Baltimore Harbor was negatively impacted by the trash that was coming down the rivers, the storm drains entering the harbor, the perception of the visitors to the harbor and people who lived there that the Harbor was disgusting, because of the amount of trash that was in it and that it was incredibly polluted.

Every day, I would see the problem firsthand. I even called the city instead, "We really need to do something about the fact that trash is the first impression of our beautiful Harbor", and the city said, "We're open to ideas." Every day, when I saw the problem and crossed the main river that flows into the Inner Harbor, particularly, when it was raining, you see the flow of trash just dumping into the harbor, making it look terrible. I thought about it every day.

Finally, I came up with the idea of a waterwheel-powered trash interceptor that would pick up the trash before it scattered around the harbor, it would stop it at the mouth of the river, pick it up and we get rid of it right before it's been a long time wondering in the harbor and been an eyesore and a hazard for the detriment to the environment. Actually, that came up with it at Christmastime, I went to a Christmas party and I get to the idea on a cocktail napkin. From there, I built a little working model and invited City officials down to see it. The city was like, "It's an interesting idea, but it's never been tried before. We don't feel like we can fund an experiment".

I went to a local, nonprofit foundation, or a local philanthropic foundation and showed them my concept, they agreed to finance the prototype. We build a prototype, which was tested for eight months, it was pretty successful, but the learning curve was pretty steep. We realized, for the amount of trash that was coming down that river and entering the harbor, we really needed a bigger, stronger, faster machine in the permanent installation.

The waterfront partnership with Adam and the Healthy Harbor Initiative, which Adam helps run, realized the potential of the Water Wheel Powered Trash Interceptor and got behind it. Helped us go from prototype to the permanent installation, which is become known as Mr. Trash Wheel and it's been very successful since it was installed in May of 2014, six years ago.

[00:04:12] Liz: I love that it was born on a cocktail napkin, that's fantastic.


[00:04:19] Liz: Adam, can you tell us your background and your role in this?

[00:04:24] Adam Lindquist: Sure. My name is Adam Lindquist. I'm the director of the Healthy Harbor Initiative and a nonprofit called the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore. Before this project started, I was studying environmental planning and was really interested in watershed issues, of course, the concept that all waterways are connected to the land by watersheds which means that, basically, everything that ends up on the ground, wherever you are, drains into streams, which floats into rivers and all that pollution bottlenecks in our waterways.

I started working for Waterfront Partnership back in 2011, they had set this goal of making the harbor safe for swimming and fishing by the year 2020. I got hired to really find new innovative ways to implement projects that were going to help us reach that goal. I think one of the things that Wonderful Partnership was trying to accomplish by then, they gave themselves 10 years to clean up Baltimore Harbor which they really wanted to try new things.

They really understood that the status quo wasn't going to cut it, so we are always looking for new technologies, and new ways to get the residents of Baltimore engaged in the restoration of their waterway. We did floating wetlands, we did oyster garden and then along, came John with this really innovative trash wheel project which he had piloted that cocktail-napkin version in 2008. My organization which really focuses is on the waterfront of Baltimore and making sure that the waterfront is clean, safe, and accessible.

We immediately saw a good difference that that first pilot trash wheel was making in the Baltimore Harbor. Very early on in the Healthy Harbor Initiative, we reached out to John and said, "Hey, we want to help find a way to fund the bigger, better, permanent trash wheel device".

[00:06:37] Liz: Amazing. What a good collaboration. Can you guys tell our audience a little bit about how it's powered? I've seen solar panels, I see the wheels, can you talk a little bit about that part?

[00:06:49] John:  Sure. The trash wheel works on all renewable energy. The waterwheel is its engine and it gets its power from two sources; when the rivers flowing, the current in the river turns the waterwheel which provides mechanical power to the conveyor and the rakes. That's the power that lifts the trash, pushes the trash up onto the conveyor, the conveyor then lifts the trash out of the water and into a dumpster. A lot of the time the flow of the river isn't sufficient to provide enough power to collect the trash quick enough to get it out of the water.

Sometimes- because we're in a title location- the flow is almost negligible. We supplement the power of the flow of the river by pumping water with solar-powered electric pumps. We have solar panels on the machine, the panel's charge batteries, the batteries in turn power pumps, and the pumps lift water from the river up into the bucket to the waterwheel, and the waterwheel uses the weight of the water to turn the wheel, and then provide mechanical power to the machine.

The nice thing about that is the flow of the river is always helping the pump water to turn and it also acts as its own transmission. If there's a heavy log on the conveyor, it just needs a little more pump water to turn it. The electric motor doesn't experience any more strain than just 10 Styrofoam cups on the conveyor. The buckets of the wheel fill with more water and the wheel turns a little more slowly, but has incredible power to lift whatever is on the conveyor up out of the water into the dumpster.

[00:09:02] Adam: To your credit, John, it's an incredibly simple but effective design. I think there could be a lot of tendency to over-design something like this, but Mr. Trash Wheel is pretty simple and I think you've said before, that a kid could look at this and be like, "Well, I could have come up with that." In some ways, that simplicity is a big part of why it has worked so well for, going on, six years now.

[00:09:25] John: I think it's a big part of it, both it's durability- we've had almost zero downtime with the machine because it's so simple and built out of durable materials. It doesn't have a lot of complicated components to go wrong- the other thing in it is, like Adam mentioned, a big part of it is attraction. People stand on the promenade, you see their hands moving in a circle and they weave their hand in a way that [inaudible 00:10:05] the trash goes up the conveyor and dumps in the dumpster. I think people get it, most technology that comes out today is mysterious to people, very few people know what's inside their cell phone and how that works. But with the trash wheel, they can see it and I think that adds to the fact that it's become an inspiration to people to become part of the solution to the problem.

[00:10:36] Adam: [inaudible 00:10:36] when we met in the promenade, I think it's important to set the fee for anyone who doesn't know that Mr. Trash Wheel is located in the Inner Harbor of Baltimore like a prominent tourist destination for the region. The promenade sees 10 million visitors every year, so there's a lot of eyes on this device. Something certainly important when designing it's that it looks really good and [inaudible 00:11:04] be in our harbor of Baltimore.

[00:11:07] Liz: Absolutely and it is eye-catching. Success breeds more success, so how many Mr. Trash Wheels do we have now?

[00:11:17] John: There's only one Mr. Trash wheel that's been joined by Professor Trash Wheel and Captain Trash Wheel, and it's going to be added to a yet-to-be-named trash wheel on the 4th, in the Baltimore Harbor. In Panama, the one that we're working on is going to be called Doña Rueda which means Madam Wheel.

[00:11:48] Adam: [laughs] I didn't know that yet. That's good.

[00:11:51] John: Each one has its own personality and each one has its own location that it works in. I think the personality is worked with the location. One they're talking about for Oakland, California is going to be called Trasharella and be a drag queen trash wheels, [laughs] San Francisco's Bay personality, I guess.

[00:12:21] Liz: That's fantastic. I want to get into the personalities of each of them, but before I do, can you tell us a little bit about how much trash you saved from going into the harbor?

[00:12:34] John: Sure. We try to keep very good track of what the trash wheels are picking up and that helps us in a number of ways. It helps us understand the problem from a scientific stance and also helps- I'll let Adam speak to this a little bit- it helps when we're advocating for behavior and policy changes, legislative changes to know what's coming down the river and understand the scope of the problem, so that we can advocate for changing certain behaviors.

We would pick up millions and millions of cigarette butts. I think we are up to nearly 13 million cigarette butts. That was used by the state as an anti-smoking letter campaign. They talked about how many times up and down the bay those cigarettes butts would reach if they were put end to end. Those statistics are important for making the trash wheel an effective advocate for additional changes rather than just technological changes.

We get those numbers by sampling what's coming up the conveyor, and generating a scientific estimate of how much is going into the dumpster. Periodically- I'm going to let Adam speak to this, as well- we have volunteers go through an entire dumpster and count every single item that's in that dumpster. It's amazing how many people are willing to do that job, because it's not a very pretty job. That confirms our methodology for sampling. I think those numbers that we generate are pretty darn accurate, if not a little understated.

[00:14:34] Adam: Yes. Since day one, I thought it was really important to collect the data on the trash we were collecting. Actually, if you go to MrTrashWheel.com, you can download an Excel spreadsheet that has every single dumpster we've ever pulled out of the harbor, alongside an estimate of all the different types of trash; cigarettes, foam containers, plastic bottles, plastic bags, even sports balls, are all included in that spreadsheet.

That's because, as John said, that's been really valuable information. I think it's some of the strongest data sets out there, in terms of what kind of plastic is ending up in our waterways and ending up in our ocean from urban sources.

[00:15:16] John: The estimates we were given for how much trash comes down the river ended up being an actual fraction of what's actually coming down the river, so the prototype was, to a certain extent, not designed to have the capacity that it needed. When we started stopping, collecting, and picking up all the trash, we realized, "There's a heck of a lot more than anybody ever thought coming down this river. We need to upgrade the capacity and the power to deal with that".

[00:15:49] Liz: What's the craziest thing he's ever picked up?

[00:15:51] Adam: I think the craziest thing, for me, personally, as a musician myself, would be an acoustic guitar that came down the river. It was very waterlogged, but I actually took it home and dried it out for two years and it eventually became playable. Now, I have a guitar, that was eaten by Mr. Trash Wheel, at my house that I can play, which is pretty ridiculous.

[00:16:16] Liz: [chuckles] That's fantastic.

[00:16:19] John: 90% of the stuff that we see coming down that river and collect is the same thing that we saw the last storm; plastic bottles, Styrofoam cups, cigarette butts, chip bags, that kind of stuff. In general, it's all the same stuff, and it's the same stuff we see in Panama, California and all over the world. We do get an occasional, interesting item that comes up, we picked up a kayak, at one point, a couple of beer kegs. We don't get many live animals coming down, we got some dead animals coming down.

One time, we had somebody's pet, Python snake which is a land snake, must have escaped, gotten into a storm drain and got washed down the river. It came down the river and in the first place it finally gets out of the water was on the Trash Wheel, it came up the conveyor, crawled off the conveyor, and on top of our solar charge controller, which is the warmest place on the machine. We saw the snake on the cameras that we used to monitor the machine as it's working, we saw it get off the thing, and the next day we were wondering if that snake was still on there. Sure enough, we found it in the National Aquarium.

We didn't know what kind of snake it was, we're not snake people, but the National Aquarium sent over their reptile expert and quickly identified as a Ball Python snake which, I guess, it's native to Africa zone.

[00:17:58] Adam: Native to West Africa, yes. It was a slow news day in Baltimore, we learned, because that night, every TV station of the city went live for Mr. Trash Wheel with the Ball Python. If there's one thing that people Baltimore remember about Mr. Trash Wheel is they know about that time he picked up a Python out of the harbor.

[00:18:21] John: And the Mr. Trash Wheel beer.

[00:18:24] Adam: [laughs] Every year, I feel like we are getting [inaudible 00:18:27] pick up the beer, but it's true. There is now a Mr. Trash Wheel's Lost Python Ale, which is a craft beer made by Peabody Heights, a local brewery that now supports trash wheel operation.

[00:18:43] Liz:  That's amazing. I love that [laughs]. I know that you guys talked about each one has its own personality. You have to tell us a little bit about the social media frenzy around Mr. Trash Wheel and how that started. Adam, I saw your video on YouTube, did it really start with one little video? Please tell us that story, too.

[00:19:10] Adam: Yes, absolutely. One of the challenges that we had with cleaning up the Baltimore Harbor it's that people in Baltimore feel very disconnected from their waterway. We've always looked at projects and said, "How can we use this to be engaging?" Like when I built floating wetlands, we get students from the local schools to come to help us fill them and plant them. We actually are growing a couple hundred thousand oysters in the Baltimore Harbor right now. It's a huge volunteer program where volunteers come and take care of the baby oysters that were growing in the harbor. 

When we installed this massive trash interceptor, I think that was an interesting and unique challenge, for me, to figure out how can we make this engaging for the public. Ironically, this trash interceptor has become, by far, our most engaging project, but at the time, that wasn't immediately obvious. I think it's been installed for about a week, we did a ribbon-cutting, so in some media had come out the ribbon-cutting when we first unveiled the device.

It wasn't until about a week later we had our first rainstorm. I went out there with my phone, I had been on my social media a lot, just talking up the device, sharing pictures of its construction. I just had friends and relatives who haven't yet fully understood what this device was, so I just did a quick, little, two-minute video that was so amateur, I wouldn't even think about putting it up on our corporate nonprofit web page or nonprofit YouTube channel, I just shot a quick video explaining how the thing works.

It was exciting, we were picking up our first tire out of the river, so I shot the video, put it up on YouTube, and what happened is the website Reddit.com picked it up, and over the course of a weekend, it received well over a million views. That was shocking to us. It actually went to number one on Reddit.com.

That was the first time that we were like, "This is something that people are really intrigued by." Suddenly, we're faced with this unique conundrum where it was exciting, as a nonprofit, to have a video go viral and have all of a sudden huge audience that's excited. How do you capture that audience? How do you build on it? Where do you go from having the viral video? Thankfully, we live in a very creative city here in Baltimore, so we actually invited creative firms, marketing firms to pitch ideas to us about how we could do on the viral success of that first video.

It was a firm called What Works that came to us and said, "What you guys need to do is we'll take a picture of the trash wheel, we will Photoshop on googly eyes, we'll give it a Twitter account, and let it have its own voice." We're nonprofit, we don't have a huge amount of money to put into marketing efforts, so starting a Twitter account, which is free, sounded very doable, and approachable fast. That was the direction we went.

Probably, we spent two years just building up that Twitter account before people started really calling it Mr. Trash Wheel. Then, there was an online petition asking us to install real, giant, googly eyes on the contraption so that it would match the Photoshop Twitter icon that we've been using. Since then, obviously, Mr. Trash Wheel was expanded into Instagram, and on Facebook. Now he's got over 65,000 followers across these different platforms.

We had to define what his personality was like. We decided that he was going to be super positive, so he's not somebody whoever gets depressed or sad about the problem of litter. He's got a very can-do attitude, he's excited to pick up trash, he's excited to really celebrate pop culture, and dive into being. I really feel when we started this back in 2014, was one of the first nonprofit's to really, fully embrace this internet meme culture. I think you, guys, see everybody doing it, so Mr. Trash Wheel is really on [inaudible 00:23:40] which is something I'm really proud of.

[00:23:45] Liz: You should be because he really is a sensation. I know, being on the Waste360 and WasteExpo side, we've followed him and it's been fantastic. I really got a kick out when he ate his own beer can. That was awesome. [laughs] 

[00:24:00] Adam: [laughs] That was, technically, Professor Trash Wheel. If Mr. Trash Wheel is the nerdy, excitable, jokester trash wheel, Professor Trash Wheel is, we call her a hybrid of Eleanor Roosevelt and Beyoncé. She's much more interested in science and education. When we pull out dumpsters for what we call the dumpster [inaudible 00:24:27]. Those are the events where we'll pull a dumpster out of the harbor, and one to 200 volunteers will give up their Saturday morning to dig through a dumpster of wet, smelly trash from the harbor, which I'm always amazed by.

It takes us about four hours, and we sort and count every piece of trash in that dumpster. That's actually when we found a Mr. Trash Wheel beer can. The beer can had been crushed in a way that indicated to us that maybe someone intended to recycle it and perhaps, there had been some wind, and that might be how the beer can ended up getting into a storm drain. That's the story we like to believe, and not that someone would drink an environmentally focused beer, and then throw the can on the ground.

[00:25:21] Liz: I think you're right. Definitely made its way there by accident.


[00:25:28] Adam: One thing I want to mention is that the trash wheel-- there's just been a tremendous amount of community support for the trash wheel. But the Maryland Court Administration more than anybody else has been a huge supporter of the project.

The Maryland Court Administration, of course, has to dredge waterways to keep the Port of Baltimore open to shipping traffic from around the world, and there's an environmental impact of that dredging that they need to mitigate, and one of the ways we can mitigate that impact is by funding environmental projects. They were a huge funder of Mr. Trash Wheel and Professor Trash Wheel and then, they actually bought Captain Trash Wheel all on their own so, Captain Trash Wheel is fully owned by the Maryland Court Administration. They've just been a huge funding partner, it's important we mention that.

[00:26:20] Liz: Definitely. With each iteration, has Mr. Trash Wheel changed at all? Or are you sticking with the same full yet very effective technology?

[00:26:32] John: We're always looking to improve on the trash wheel design, and the concept has remained consistent. We really believe that using the waterwheel and the basic concepts of the system is a great way to do this. It's been extremely successful, it's been very durable, it's been a user friendly to operate and maintain.

That said, we're constantly looking at ways to make improvements. Third trash wheel, Captain Trash Wheel has- the water wheel itself has changed on each one and the Captain Trash Wheel design for the water wheel, we feel has been a big improvement over earlier versions.

Water wheels have been around for centuries, but we're actually doing something that hasn't been done that much, and that is we're using it. Water wheels are classified as undershot, midshot, or overshot wheels, depending on where the water comes in. In a lot of the mills, they had a sluiceway that dumped it on the top of the wheel, sometimes they use the flow of the river and just to paddle the wheel through the water, that's an undershot wheel. The overshot wheel dumps it on the top of the wheel.

We're actually doing both, we have a hybrid wheel. The flow of the rivers was turning it as an undershot wheel, the pumps are dumping in at the top and turning it as an overshot wheel, so that's not a very common thing to see, most the water wheels have always been one or the other, we're using it as two. We've finally developed a design for the wheel that we feel like it's giving us a lot of efficiency in both applications, and Captain Trash Wheel has that. The other ones are very effective, but Captain Trash Wheel has taken it to a better place as far as efficiency goes.

There's a lot of minor tweaks that we do as far as-- we've tried different conveyor bed, surfacing- the conveyor likewise. Most conveyors are designed to handle one type of material, whether it be sand and gravel, or apples, grain, or whatever. We get everything from big logs to cigarette butts and we even can pick up oil that comes down the river.

The conveyors are unique in that way, they're picking up everything from weighing fractions of an ounce to thousands of pounds, so the conveyor has to be a unique design and we've been working on that as well, making some design tweaks to it as we go from generation to generation. But we're very pleased with the function of-- Mr. Trash Wheels is still my favorite trash wheel.


[00:29:51] John: We're definitely making some improvements as we go along.

[00:29:56] Adam: John is in the process of building Baltimore's 4th trash wheel, which will be placed in another large stream in the city, and it'll be the largest trash wheel that we've ever built.

[00:30:08] John: The biggest, strongest, fastest trash wheel we've ever built.

[00:30:11] Adam: Yes. Of course, we have to assign a new personality and name to it, which is the silly side that I get to work on. We've actually opened it up to people to suggest names for this new trash wheel, and we've received almost 4,000 name suggestions. Now our job is to pare that down to maybe our top four names and we're going to let people vote on what the final name should be.

[00:30:36] John: I like to say that we make it eat, Adam makes it see and talk and have a personality. We make it eat.


[00:30:45] Liz: That's a great distribution right there, I like that.


[00:30:52] Liz: Now, it sounds like you're already working with other cities to bring Mr. Trash Wheel or the like to their cities. Can you talk a little bit more about that? I can't imagine that you would have- I would think many cities would be calling you to figure this out because it is so-

[00:31:11] John: Yes, we've been contacted by over 100 countries. We've been contacted by cities around the world and around the country. When I first started this project I thought, "We're going to clean up Baltimore Harbor", that was my goal, and quickly after Adams video went viral, we've discovered that Baltimore is definitely not unique and not even really as bad as many places as far as the problem of trash in the waterways.

Since then I've been to many places that make Baltimore's rivers look almost pristine in comparison, places like Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Indonesia, places like that have the problem even much more pronounced. There are lots of places around the world that could use trash wheels, and there are lots of places where people are interested in this technology. We're developing ways to help them with those projects.

Our next project is going to be one more for Baltimore, and we're working in Panama City, Panama, which will be our first international project that's actually implemented with lots of the design development stage. These projects are complicated in a way, they're simple in concept, "I'm going to pick up the trash, and get rid of it out of the waterway", but you've got to figure out-- as soon as you get a trash wheel, you get a lot of trash and you got to figure out what to do with the trash, how to operate it, who's going to own it and what permits are required. It's a little more to it than just send us a trash wheel and will start picking up the trash.

A lot of these projects take a lot more time than you'd expect, but there are projects moving in a lot of different places, cities here in the United States and around the world as well.

[00:33:27] Adam: Almost every week, I hear from very well-intentioned people who emailed me, or call me and say, "Got to get a trash wheel in my city", but they haven't fully thought through what it means to intercept trash which as [inaudible 00:33:44], once you collect the trash, you own the trash, and you're then responsible for disposal of the trash, there's a whole long term cost associated with doing that.

I would give Baltimore City a lot of credit for actually stepping up because I see this time and time again, cities not wanting responsibility for the trash in their waterways, they're perfectly content to say, "Once the trash is in the river, it's going downstream, it's somebody else's problem." Now, Baltimore for a variety of reasons, one being that they actually have a legal requirement which is known as the trash TMDL, which is a legal requirement for them to remove a certain amount of trash from their waterway, so that was certainly motivating

They still didn't have to buy in its full to the trash wheel technology, I think, as they did, so I give Baltimore a lot of credit for stepping up and saying, "We're not going to just let our trash flow into the Chesapeake Bay, we're going to collect it, and continue to fund the removal and proper disposal of that, of the litter that's in our waterways".

[00:34:54] John: Yes. The status quo in most places around the world, it's not a very good situation, but one thing you can say about it it's cheap and easy, and with that is, "Let it go downstream and become somebody else's problem or the ocean's problem." Overcoming the ease of inaction against taking ownership is something that takes a while to get it, takes a commitment for an organization, a city, or a government agency to say, "Yes, this is something we want to do and take the responsibility for all the phases and all the responsibilities that entails".

[00:35:46] Adam: Obviously, I'm the world's biggest fan of trash wheels, and Mr. Trash Wheel, I think it's a really well done and well-implemented technology. But the sad truth is that there's so much plastic in our waterways, that anything you put out there it's going to start collecting trash, any kind of intercept there, any type of technology.

I think that the power of Mr. Trash Wheel, what he brings to the table, is not just cleaning up the river, but is really an important engagement piece, because what we focus on with Mr. Trash Wheel is behavior change. We use these dumpster dives where we count every single foam container, for example, and we take these pictures of mountains of foam containers that we pulled out of the river, and then we show them to our politicians, we show them to our elective representative, it really helps them understand a problem in a really tangible way.

Baltimore City in 2018, ban foam containers with help from many different organizations working on that, but certainly, the data and photos provided by Mr. Trash Wheel were a good part of that. Then Maryland went on to become the first state in the country to ban Styrofoam containers, that ban goes into effect July 1st. We are really proud that we're not just treating a symptom here, we're also treating the disease which is [unintelligible 00:37:18] on single-use plastic.

[00:37:20] Liz: Absolutely. Do you think that will hold true for plastic bags as well?

[00:37:25] Adam: We have helped the city ban plastic bags, the mayor signed that into law in January. We were so close to helping the state to ban plastic bags across Maryland, unfortunately, a little thing called the coronavirus came in, and they actually ended legislative session for a week, so we were unable to get that legislation passed at the state level, but we're hopeful that next legislative session we're going to try again.

[00:37:56] Liz: Good luck. Beyond the legislative side, do you think Mr. Trash Wheel and Company, they've inspired residents to be more mindful of their own habits, and actually change their behavior?

[00:38:10] Adam: I know it has. I think someone told me that they didn't even think about their waste stream before, they didn't think about how their trash was being disposed of, they didn't even recycle. Basically, we did a Mr. Trash Wheel Ask-me-anything on Reddit, where people can just type in and ask Mr. Trash questions, we have a lot of fun answering them, and being very silly and do [unintelligible 00:38:37] like comic strip and Photoshop things.

Someone came up to me once and said that after engaging with Mr. Trash Wheel in that way, they actually started recycling for the first time in their life, just because of how funny and inspiring Mr. Trash Wheel was.

There's a secret society of trash wheel fans in Baltimore called, The Order of the Wheel, every spring we have this opportunity for residents of Baltimore to pledge, to become members of our secret society. In order to be accepted into society, they must complete five challenges, all related to cleaning up the environment, to learn more about the environmental issue in the city and if they complete all five of those tasks, they get to join our secret order which, I think, has about 4,000 members.

[00:39:31] Liz: Wow. That's amazing. The viral aspect of this is just astonishing, I love it.

[00:39:37] Adam: Thank you. We have a lot of fun with it, it gives us an opportunity to be very creative and very [inaudible 00:39:43], just a really great thing to be able to incorporate into your everyday work.

[00:39:48] John: Yes. When I first came up with this idea, I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that this would have this following and this viral aspect. I thought the biggest reward I could get from this project would be looking out in the harbor and saying, "I must clean the harbor." But now I see LEGO Leagues where kids are working on their own trash cleaning devices, kids having lemonade stands to fund the next trash wheel, and things like The Order of the Wheel.

Everybody getting excited about becoming part of the solution, it's just incredibly rewarding and I would say, just as rewarding as looking up and seeing a lot less trash in the harbor.

[00:40:36] Liz: I bet. What rewarding and what a legacy for both of you, really. He's been working his magic for a while, is the harbor as clean as you hoped it would be by now? Can you fish? Can swim? Or are you almost there?

[00:40:54] Adam: That's a great question, an important question since we set a goal of making a harbor safe for swimming and fishing by 2020 and it is now 2020. I am pleased to report that we have seen some tremendous improvements in water quality in the Baltimore Harbor, of course, trash is just one component of that and we do see a lot of less trash.

Not just because of Mr. Trash Wheel and [unintelligible 00:41:18] Trash Wheel are a big part of keeping the litter out of our waterways, but the city has also stepped up and expanded street-sweeping, the cities launched the Municipal Trash Can Program, so now every household in Baltimore has a trash can, and all of this is combined to mean that there is far less litter in the harbor now than there was when we started.

Mr. Trash Wheel, after a single rainstorm- and also we haven't touched on this but, about 90% of the trash collected by Mr. Trash Wheel is rain-driven if it's not raining, we're not picking up a whole lot of trash, but when there's a big storm that comes through the city, Mr. Trash Wheel picked up 15 dumpsters of trash, after a single rainstorm. If you can try to imagine what 15 dumpsters spread out across the water would look like, it used to look like you could walk across the harbor on the island of massive trash, and that just doesn't happen anymore.

[00:42:16] Liz: Great, that's huge progress.

[00:42:18] Adam: Absolutely. We are aiming to host a swim event in the Baltimore Harbor in the summer of 2021.

[00:42:26] John: The harbor is full of life, as far as the fishable component on that. It's amazing when you look in the harbor, particularly, the trash wheel, one of the things it does when we're pumping the water and turning the wheel is provided that it puts oxygen into the water, and when the rest of the harbor is low on oxygen on a hot summer day, the fish and other aquatic life will gather around the oxygen-rich area, which is near the water wheel, and it's amazing to see the number and variety of marine life that's in the harbor.

There's lots of life in the harbor and the spite of the fact that the perception is that it's a dead zone, that's not really true. An incredible amount of life. One of the things nice things about the trash wheel, it can pick up a lot of trash at a time but it does it slowly, so we don't end up picking up live fish or other marine life from the water. A lot of people get concerned about that. The fish quickly realized that the water is drying up underneath them as is getting on the conveyor and they just swim off. We don't see live animals going into our dumpster, part of the design was to make sure that doesn't happen.

[00:43:59] Liz: That's great. Has anyone ever reached out to you? I know its own little zone, but to help clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

[00:44:10] John: In my opinion, we've really got to focus on stopping the flow of trash into the ocean, getting it out of the ocean. It's challenging enough to get it at the mouth of a river flowing into a harbor. It's an extremely harsh environment, extremely challenging, and somewhat expensive because you've got to build equipment that's up to that challenge, and then you need to transport the dumpsters from water, and transfer along the land, then take them out land to the disposal facility.

When you try to do that out in the middle of the ocean-- those costs go up exponentially, and your capture rate goes down because most of the trash does not end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. A lot of trash does, but most of it ends up other places in the ocean whether is sinks, ends up on a beach or somewhere else. In my mind, it's a little too late to get it once you're out in the middle of the ocean, you've got to stop it- the big problem is that it's not stopping, it just keeps coming every year, every day, there are more and more trashes dumping into our oceans.

If we could turn off that flow will be way ahead, and then we should start maybe, think about what we can do about the legacy stuff that's out in the ocean. You don't start mopping your floor while your tub still overflowing.

[00:45:54] Liz: Makes sense. Adam, anything that you're working on from the voice perspective other than naming the 4th one, is any other fun campaign plan that we can look forward to?

[00:46:09] Adam: Right now, Mr. Trash Wheel is really focusing on social distancing and talking about how his moorings keep him 50 feet away from all human beings, how he encourages people should be more like Mr. Trash Wheel right now.

[00:46:26] Liz: That's great advice.

[00:46:29] Adam: [laughs] I think one thing that we have coming up this fall is a Mr. Trash Wheel fan fest, is a really great time, local artists have created such amazing artwork depicting Mr. Trash Wheel; stained glass windows, painting, cakes and pies in the shape of Mr. Trash Wheel.

We have this one event every year where these artists all come together and they sell their Mr. Trash Wheel theme artwork at a big fundraising event for our organization. We're always looking forward to that because you just get some amazing [unintelligible 00:47:10] stuff from some very passionate fans.

[00:47:12] Liz: That's fantastic, you'll have to keep us posted on when that is so we could come down and cover it. Is there anything else you guys want to share? Because I'm trying to be respectful of your time, it's almost an hour. Is there anything you wish I had asked or anything you want to share with our audience?

[00:47:26] John: I'm good, I think it's been a great conversation, you hit on all the key points of the projects that were working. Like I say, we've been working with Adam, the Waterfront Partnership and the Healthy Harbor initiative has been just a tremendous partnership for us, it's a great working arrangement and they're able to complement what we do in ways that we never could. We’re thrilled with that.

[00:47:57] Adam: Thank you, John. We like working with you too. Obviously, all of this was built on the back of John's incredible invention, the passion of John and his ability to really get the city to buy into this technology and believe in it. Thank you, John, for your visionary leadership on this topic.

[00:48:19] John: Thanks, I appreciate it so.

[00:48:20] Liz: Your collaboration is so impressive, the fact that you went from invention to execution and then taking it to the next level for the engagement. The fact that you really are seeing tremendous awareness now in Baltimore and surrounding areas, it's just very impressive. I just want to thank you both for your time today but also, applaud you both for the great work you're doing with Mr. Trash Wheel and his cousins because it really is a huge inspiration to all of us in this industry, so thank you.

[00:48:52] John: Thanks for having us, it has been a great conversation. I'm very glad to be a part of it.

[00:48:59] Adam: As Mr. Trash Wheel would say, "Keep it wheel".


[00:49:03] Liz: I love it. Thank you both, please stay well and we'll continue to follow all of this, Mr. Trash Wheel and friends as you keep rolling on and keeping it wheel. Thank you.

[00:49:16] John: Likewise, stay well.


Stay in the Know - Subscribe to Our Newsletters
Join a network of more than 90,000 waste and recycling industry professionals. Get the latest news and insights straight to your inbox. Free.

You May Also Like