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Environment and Climate change stories from WYPR

Baltimore’s beloved Trash Wheels could retire if the following steps are taken

Every year, googly-eyed Trash Wheels collect over 400 tons of litter and debris from Baltimore’s waterways.

According to the Healthy Harbor Initiative, the environmental success of those trash wheels is a consequence of legislation.

Ahead of Earth Day, WYPR’s Wambui Kamau spoke with the Initiative’s Vice President, Adam Lindquist, who says stronger environmental protections could retire the beloved trash wheels.

Lindquist: The vast majority of litter that we pull out of the Baltimore Harbor is plastics. Our over reliance on single use plastics is directly tied to how much we extract. These products that don't break down in our ecosystem just become litter. [They] you know, get consumed by fish and crabs, and really affect the aesthetic value of our waterways as well.

Kamau: Baltimore City’s plastic bag ban went into effect in October of 2021. What impact has that had on the trash wheels?

Lindquist: We’ve found that legislation is one of the things we can do that has the biggest impact on trash in our waterways. When Maryland became the first state to ban styrofoam takeout containers, we saw an 86% reduction in the number of foam containers ending up in our waterways. That one piece of legislation virtually solved the problem of takeout containers floating around in our waterways.

And we've seen a similar impact with the city's ban of plastic bags. We've seen about a 63% reduction since Baltimore City banned plastic bags.

A couple of months ago Baltimore county voted to ban plastic bags. That ban doesn't go into effect until November, but some of the water that comes out on our streets, into the Baltimore Harbor, starts in Baltimore County.

That means some of the trash and pollution in Baltimore County ends up in the Baltimore Harbor. So it was really important that the County banned plastic bags, along with the city. That way we're addressing the entire watershed.

Kamau: While we're on this topic of legislation, what else would you like to see passed?

Lindquist: After a big rainstorm, we might pull 15 dumpsters and trash out of the river.

[So while it takes us some time to pull up that trash— you can see a big pile of trash sitting in front of Mr. Trash Wheel, as he slowly eats it.] In the past, when I took photos of that pile of trash it was all white with Styrofoam, [because that's the lightest thing and always comes to the top of the pile]. Now when we go out and look at that pile of trash, the white is gone like you don't see that Styrofoam anymore.

What you do see now, more than ever before, are the thousands upon thousands of plastic bottles that come down into our waterways. The pictures are just shocking of just plastic bottles floating down the river as far as the eye can see.

Lindquist says the trash wheels are picking up heaps of plastic bottles.
courtesy of Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore
Lindquist says the trash wheels are picking up heaps of plastic bottles.

If there's one piece of legislation that I would love to see passed, it would be a bottle deposit fee in the state of Maryland.

I grew up in New York state where we always had a bottle deposit fee. As a kid I went around and collected plastic bottles and took them to the grocery store where I received a five cent deposit back and that became my spending money as a child. There's several other states that have those laws on the books.

There are all sorts of innovative ways that you can go about implementing a bottle deposit fee, and I think we would need to explore the best ways to do it here in Maryland. But we've got to do something about plastic bottles there.

Wambui Kamau is a General Assignment Reporter for WYPR. @WkThee
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