Baltimore addressed its trash problem in its Inner Harbor with a floating water wheel. But it got public buy-in by giving it a personality.

When John Kellett invented the Inner Harbor Wheel to collect trash from Baltimore’s popular waterway, he never imagined it would have eyeballs. Or a Twitter account. But these features have made the trash collection contraption—commonly known as Mr. Trash Wheel—beloved by many Baltimore residents, and helped the Healthy Harbor Initiative come alive.

“Ever since we installed the googly eyes on Mr. Trash Wheel, the awareness and excitement around this whole idea of cleaning up the harbor has exploded,” Casey Merbler, a project manager of the Healthy Harbor Initiative, said in a new video produced by the Van Alen Institute in collaboration with CityLab. Indeed, Mr. Trash Wheel has almost 15 thousand followers on Twitter. And his fame is well deserved. The floating water wheel is powered by water current and solar energy, and has collected 1,490,960 pounds of trash since May 2014, including 703,799 chip bags, and 9,857,900 cigarette butts.

Some of Mr. Trash Wheel’s more unusual seizures have been well celebrated by Baltimore residents. Like the time a python wrapped itself around its solar controller box, and then Baltimore’s Peabody Heights Brewery made a beer to commemorate the incident. (What’s more, proceeds from the Lost Python Ale help aid the Healthy Harbor Initiative).

The publicity campaign is a potential model for getting buy-in around otherwise dry public infrastructure.

“New infrastructure in cities these days has to do multiple things,” said Adam Lindquist, director of the healthy harbor initiative, in the video. “Mr. Trash Wheel has kind of shown people that there are new ideas out there, and we can implement them.”

Van Alen Sessions is presented by Van Alen Institute with CityLab. Season Three, “Autonomous Infrastructure,” is directed and produced by Lucy Wells. The series is made possible with support from the National Endowment for the Arts, and is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Connect with Van Alen Institute on vanalen.org.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A young girl winces from the sting as she receives the polio vaccine in 1954.
    Life

    How Mandatory Vaccination Fueled the Anti-Vaxxer Movement

    To better understand the controversy over New York’s measles outbreak, you have to go back to the late 19th century.

  2. Equity

    Is This the Next Mayor of Boston?

    City Councilor Michelle Wu, a Chicago native, has pushed for fare-free transit, tangled with Airbnb over housing regulations, and shaken up the politics of Old Boston.  

  3. Charts

    The Evolution of Urban Planning in 10 Diagrams

    A new exhibit from the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association showcases the simple visualizations of complex ideas that have changed how we live.

  4. Life

    How to Inspire Girls to Become Carpenters and Electricians

    Male-dominated trades like construction, plumbing, and welding can offer job security and decent pay. A camp aims to show girls these careers are for them, too.

  5. A new map of neighborhood change in U.S. metros shows where displacement is the main problem, and where economic decline persists.
    Equity

    From Gentrification to Decline: How Neighborhoods Really Change

    A new report and accompanying map finds extreme gentrification in a few cities, but the dominant trend—particularly in the suburbs—is the concentration of low-income population.