As the night falls over Baltimore, visitors who are fortunate enough to find themselves out on the streets surrounding the city’s Inner Harbor may end up confused or even a little alarmed on the off chance that they encounter an alien-like silhouette that appears to be guarding the water. While the giant creation resembling a snail with googly eyes looks terrifying under the moonlight, it actually represents an unlikely intersection of culture and environmentalism that has served as an unofficial mascot of Baltimore for the last seven years. Affectionately named Mr. Trash Wheel, the contraption is known as a trash interceptor and has worked to remove tons of waste from the Inner Harbor’s Jones Falls stream since its invention in 2014. It is believed that the machine has collected 1600 tons of debris so far, ranging from plastic bottles, to styrofoam, to even the most unexpected items like a guitar and a live ball python.
It all began more than a decade ago. John Kellett was a man with a great deal of shipbuilding expertise as well as an environmental education. With this background, Kellett worked in these fields for twenty years in Baltimore, primarily along the Inner Harbor. As he walked daily along the harbor, Kellett noticed that even moderate levels of rain would lead to a surge of trash that flowed directly from the streets into the Harbor.
While puzzling over various methods of addressing this problem, he eventually consulted a city official, who told him that the city would be happy to work together on solutions if anything existed that was economically feasible. Finally, Kellett came up with the first sketches for the trash interceptor and developed a prototype in 2008. Today, the invention has inspired dozens of copycats in Maryland and beyond. Mr. Trash Wheel’s inventor couldn’t be happier–“I’m still kind of in shock about how much attention it has garnered,” Kellett said. “Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have thought that this idea I sketched on a napkin would lead to all this.”
Kellett’s creation has had a sizable impact on Baltimore’s culture in addition to its waterways. Mr. Trash Wheel has been taking advantage of social media, boasting profiles on Twitter and Instagram with over twenty thousand followers on each platform. By remaining active on these platforms, the friendly neighborhood cleaning machine is able to interact directly with Baltimore natives and promote environmental awareness, particularly the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative. The interceptor’s constant online presence has led to a sort of cult following as well, with as many as three spinoff projects now up and running throughout the city along with another three local craft beers taking up the Trash Wheel-inspired mantle.
Perhaps the most interesting is the recent forming of the “Order of the Wheel”, a secret society dedicated to serving the trash interceptor. Now in its third year, the Order has begun accepting its third wave of pledges, who will work to prove their worthiness by completing a series of tasks designed to improve sustainability within Baltimore waterways. As director of the Healthy Harbor initiative which manages the secret society, Adam Lundquist is excited about the program as a fun way to get younger climate-conscious residents involved with sustainability, even in a remote setting. “We hope Order of the Wheel can provide a brief respite and pick-me-up during these otherwise challenging times,” said Lundquist in a statement.