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. Equity

    The FBI's Forgotten War on Black-Owned Bookstores

    At the height of the Black Power movement, the Bureau focused on the unlikeliest of public enemies: black independent booksellers.

  2. Transportation

    You Can’t Design Bike-Friendly Cities Without Considering Race and Class

    Bike equity is a powerful tool for reducing inequality. Too often, cycling infrastructure is tailored only to wealthy white cyclists.

  3. Transportation

    With Trains Like Schwebebahn, No Wonder Germans Love Public Transit

    Infrastructure like this makes it clear why Germany continues to produce enthusiasm for public transit, generation after generation.

  4. Life

    I Answered Strangers’ Philosophical Questions on the Street

    An “Ask a Philosopher” booth in New York City attracted a surprising number of people with deep, meaningful questions that had long gone unanswered.

  5. Life

    The Town Where Retirees Can’t Retire

    In fast-aging pockets of rural America, older residents are going back to work. But not always because they need the money.