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. Life

    How Manhattan Became a Rich Ghost Town

    New York’s empty storefronts are a dark omen for the future of cities.

  2. A pink-shaded map of Los Angeles showing student debt burden
    Equity

    The Neighborhoods Buried In Student Debt

    How much of your paycheck goes towards student loans?

  3. Equity

    How a Booming City Can Be More Equitable

    In Durham, North Carolina, abandoned factories are becoming tech hubs and microbreweries. But building a shared commitment to its most vulnerable citizens could be a trickier feat of redevelopment.

  4. Equity

    Why Are So Many People In San Jose Fighting Housing for Teachers?

    The school system’s plan to build affordable apartment units for the city’s teachers has triggered a fierce backlash in one affluent area.

  5. Transportation

    Why Public Transportation Works Better Outside the U.S.

    The widespread failure of American mass transit is usually blamed on cheap gas and suburban sprawl. But the full story of why other countries succeed is more complicated.