Amid the TED talks, press-pushes, empty promises, and gratuitous publicity stunts, the City of Baltimore quietly built, tested, re-designed, re-built, and deployed a solar-powered, trash-eating, waterwheel-driven garbage scow that’s plying the urban waters of the Chesapeake Bay, pulling tons of trash out of the Inner Harbor every day. Say hello to the Inner Harbor Water Wheel.
The Water Wheel is the brainchild of John Kellett of Clearwater Mills, who has been developing the technology since 2008. The first water wheel, which was designed to look like an actual mill house, spent three years in trials, before being removed from the Harbor in 2011 as it couldn’t keep up with the volume of garbage enteri2ng the Bay from Baltimore City. The new Wheel debuted this May and, in it’s first major trial, removed 50,000 lbs of trash, ranging from cigarette butts to tires.
Watch it work its marvel
1. Its footprint is tiny, its reach is huge. Other ocean cleaning arrays rely on stretching massive booms across the ocean, exposing them to wind, potentially entangling marine animals, and requiring huge resource investments. Others must travel, burning fossil fuels and pulling large nets that collect both plastic and marine life.
By positioning it at the mouth of a major river, the Water Wheel can capture the entire Jones Falls watershed with a single short length of boom. The Jones Falls watershed encompasses 58 square miles of densely populated city. All drains lead to the sea, and all drains in this watershed lead directly to the Water Wheel.
2. Visibility matters. Most proposed ocean clean up solutions are out of sight and out of mind. A floating platform moored thousands of mile offshore does little to inform the public about the consequences of plastic waste. In contrast, the Water Wheel is moored in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, one of the most heavily traffic locations in the state. Within a few hundred yards are five-star restaurants, the National Aquarium, major financial offices, and dozens of tourist attractions.
The Water Wheel catches plastic and other trash at the source, before it has a chance to reach the ocean, before it becomes part of the North Atlantic Garbage Patch. This matters. A recent study in PNAS revealed that we don’t even know where most oceanic plastic goes. So no matter how efficient the high seas-based clean-up array, it will never collect more than a tiny fraction of the total trash in our oceans. Meanwhile, the Water Wheel keeps spinning, keeping that same trash from reaching the sea.