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Wheeling Trash From River to Dump

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

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A trash-collecting water wheel, powered by the river’s current, has hauled in millions of tons of debris—and a lot of attention—in the short time it has been trolling Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

The Inner Harbor Water Wheel has been slowly moving around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor since May and has collected 95 tons of litter.

Healthy Harbor

The inventors of the Inner Harbor Water Wheel show the equipment in action.

“It looks sort of like a cross between a spaceship and a covered wagon and an old mill," John Kellett, one of the wheel’s designers, told told NPR. "It’s pretty unique in its look, but it’s also doing a really good job getting this trash out of the water.”

The city’s goal is to make the Inner Harbor “‘swimmable and fishable’ by 2020,” The Architect’s Newspaper reported.

“This is a new technology to solve an age-old problem—trash in the Inner Harbor,” Laurie Schwartz, executive director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, told the newspaper.

“The trouble is people who don’t behave.”

Trash Tossers

Schwartz said most people think the litter floating in the harbor comes from people throwing in trash at the site.

Baltimore Water Wheel
Healthy Harbor

Baltimore hopes its Inner Harbor Water Wheel will make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020.

The real problem, however, is caused by debris washing in from the surrounding region. The amount of trash coming from those neighbors can be greatly reduced if people change their behavior.

Until then, the water wheel can collect as much as 50,000 pounds of trash per day, reports Healthy Harbor, a Waterfront Partnership initiative.

Since May, the wheel has collected 95 tons of litter. That includes more than 53,000 plastic bottles, more than three million cigarette butts, and more than 43,000 chip bags.

Healthy Harbor

The wheel has collected 95 tons of litter since May.

On a sunny day, the water wheel’s solar panels can produce 2,500 watts of electricity, enough to power a typical Maryland home, officials say.

Officials hope the device's very presence will also serve as a visual reminder that any litter tossed upstream will eventually wash up in the downtown waterfront area.

Jones Falls Baltimore

The Jones Falls Watershed drains 58 square miles of land. Trash collected by the water wheel could come from anywhere in the watershed region.

The wheel sits where Jones Falls empties into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and replaces a smaller wheel that sat in the harbor for several months in 2008. The former wheel was too small to handle the trash.

How It Works

The river's current powers the wheel, according to the local inventor, Clearwater Mills LLC. When the current is inadequate, a solar panel array provides the power to keep the equipment running.


The river current provides power to turn the water wheel, which lifts trash and debris from the water and deposits it in a Dumpster barge.  A solar panel array provides additional power to keep the machine running when there is not enough water current. When the dumpster is full, it is towed away by boat and a new dumpster is put in place.

However, the company says the harbor is usually more than sufficient to power the wheel and its conveyer consistently.

The undercarriage of the shell is 50 feet long, 30 feet wide, and weighs 100,000 pounds. The metal wheel is 14 feet wide and propels the trash and debris up a conveyor belt that then deposits it into the covered Dumpster barge in back of the wheel. When the Dumpster is full, it is towed away and replaced.

Before the water wheel, NPR reported, Baltimore used to catch its trash with crab nets.


Tagged categories: Environmental Control; Environmental Protection; Environmentally friendly; Good Technical Practice; North America

Comment from Paul Braun, (9/9/2014, 10:27 AM)

There is a skimmer working New York Harbor. Many years ago, The New York Times asked the captain of the skimmer what was the most unusual item he found in the catch. One day among the numerous bodies, flotsam and jetsum, they found a giraffe carcass. I hope the same fate doesn' befall our whimsical Jones Falls friend

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