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Baltimore's Trash-Eating Machine May Multiply into Other Cities

This is the sound of the giant armadillo that is trying to reproduce in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

It’s a clattering, splashing machine covered with a shell of stretched fabric and metal.  The futuristic-looking device uses a water wheel and the power of the largest river flowing into the harbor --as well as a glimmering solar panel on its back -- to drive mechanical rakes and a conveyor belt that pull trash from the river before it can pollute  the Inner Harbor.

Daniel Chase, is a partner in Clearwater Mills, the company that built the water wheel trash interceptor, better known as the Trash Wheel, which is located next to Baltimore’s Pier 6 Concert Pavillion.

 “It picks up all the trash that comes down the Jones Falls, because every time it rains, all the trash in the streets gets swept into the storm drains and comes down the river,” Chase said. “And we are here to catch it before it spreads out into the harbor. We have deployment booms that guide it to our conveyor, and then our conveyor loads it directly into a dumpster, and then the dumpster goes to shore, and gets taken to RESCO for the incinerator, where it gets burned and turned into energy.”

Chase says that the machine has kept tons of Styrofoam and plastic out of the harbor – and also some unusual things that have come floating down the Jones Falls.

 “We found an empty keg.  We found an empty kayak,” Chase said. “We’ve also pulled up a half eaten container of ice cream, still frozen.  And then almost anything you see on the streets of Baltimore in the gutters is what we pick up.” 

Floating plastics and trash are problem not only for tourism and business in cities like Baltimore.

“It goes out into the Inner Harbor, and out into the Bay, and then eventually out into the ocean,” Chase said.

Once in the environment, plastics trash lingers for centuries, forming island-like rafts and breaking down into small particles that are eaten by fish, birds, and eventually people.

This is the second version of the trash wheel, which was invented by Baltimore entrepreneur John Kellett.  An earlier version was launched about five years ago and worked, but  proved a bit too small to capture the immense amount of litter that pours from city streets.

Trash Wheel 2.0 cost about $700,000 to build and is owned by the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, a coalition of waterfront businesses and community groups.  Adam Lindquist is manager of the Healthy Harbor Initiative at the Waterfront Partnership. 

 “We installed the water wheel, along with Clearwater Mills, in May of 2014.  Since that time, it’s collected 278 tons of trash and litter,” Lindquist said.  “And so it’s had a tremendous visual impact on the harbor.  It used to be after a large rain fall, the harbor would be covered in trash.  It looked like you could walk across the harbor on trash.  And that just isn’t the case anymore because we have this water wheel.”

The trash wheel has proven so successful that the partnership is now trying to reproduce it – creating an offspring of the armadillo-shaped machine. Businesses in the city have contributed $200,000 so far toward the $550,000 cost of building a second new trash interceptor wheel in Canton, at the outfall of Harris Creek.

And there may be soon be even more than that. Officials in Washington D.C. may be interested in buying their own version.  And the inventors of the trash wheel have been flying down to Rio de Janiero, working to sell a version to the hosts of the 2016 Olympics.  It seems the Brazil has a problem with Guanabara Bay as the site of the Olympic sailing events, because it has so much floating trash.

It’s a problem that the green entrepreneurs from Baltimore know well, and could help solve.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.