Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a city landmark teeming with tourists, restaurants and — until recently — floating trash.
John Kellett used to walk by Pier 6 every day on his way to work at the Baltimore Maritime Museum on the Inner Harbor. He'd notice the trash floating in the water and hear tourists call the harbor disgusting — and it bugged him.
That's when he developed his idea: a big water wheel to collect the plastic cups, cigarette butts and Cheetos bags that flow into the waterway after rainstorms. Kellett approached Baltimore officials about ways to remove the trash — and they listened. The water wheel is now docked in the harbor.
"It looks sort of like a cross between a spaceship and a covered wagon and an old mill," says Kellett. "It's pretty unique in its look, but it's also doing a really good job getting this trash out of the water."
"I started out thinking, 'Maybe we could bale it like a hay baler.' And then I said, 'Well, that's not necessary; maybe we can make it even simpler — we can just use the power of the runoff that brings it to collect it,' " he says.
Kellett is talking about the runoff from the Jones Falls river. He placed the water wheel right where the river spills into the harbor. That's where trash lingering on Baltimore's streets ends up after rainstorms sweep it into storm drains.
The city used to catch the trash with crab nets. But since the water wheel began churning in May, it has removed 40 tons of trash from the harbor.
That's made business owners like Bill Flohr very happy.
"The water wheel has been a time-saver for us," says Flohr, who runs Baltimore Harbor's East Marina. "It seems to be collecting probably 95 percent of what we normally had to pick up by hand."
Flohr likens the trash that comes into the harbor "to having a box of mice, letting them go in a gymnasium, and having two people try to corral them. The mice spread out, the trash spreads out, and it's a long job to get it clean," he says.
John Kellett knows his invention doesn't solve Baltimore's trash problem, but he's hoping the thousands of tourists who see the water wheel will realize that every piece of trash that ends up on the ground may eventually float by in the water.
Baltimore wants to make the Inner Harbor clean enough for swimming by 2020.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Baltimore's Inner Harbor is a city landmark, a lively spot, popular with tourists because of its restaurants, bars and music venues, all around a body of water that was, until recently, choked with trash. NPR's Julia Botero reports on one man's innovative, yet old-fashioned, method of cleaning up the harbor.
JULIA BOTERO, BYLINE: We're standing on the dock of the Inner Harbor. It's a beautiful Thursday afternoon. The sun is shining. I'm looking down at the water. And right in front of me, I see not one but two, three, four, five, six cigarette butts, an empty bag of Cheetos, a Swiss rolls wrapper. John Kellett brings his speed boat close to the dock, where I'm waiting. Hi.
JOHN KELLETT: Hi, I'm John.
BOTERO: Hi, so you're - he's come to show me his solution for the trash problem in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. We speed past the Promenade to the center, Pier Six, where the waterwheel is docked.
KELLETT: We can hop off and get on board, check out the wheel. Looks sort of like a cross between a spaceship and a covered wagon and an old mill. It's pretty unique in its look. But it's also doing a really good job getting this trash out of the water.
BOTERO: Kellett used to walk by this pier on his way to work every day. He'd notice all the plastic cups and bottles floating in the water and heard tourists calling the harbor disgusting. It bugged him. Kellett approached Baltimore officials with his ideas for removing the trash. And they listened.
KELLETT: So I started out thinking, maybe we could bail it like a hay bailer. And then I said, well, that's not necessary. Maybe we could make it even simpler. We could just use the power of the run-off that brings it, to collect it.
BOTERO: Kellett is talking about the run-off from the Jones Falls River. He's placed the water wheel where the river spills into the harbor. After a rainstorm, trash lingering on Baltimore's streets - like that Cheetos bag and cigarette butts I saw earlier - gets swept into storm drains and ends up here. We watch as a 7-Eleven cup makes its way towards the wheel.
KELLETT: Here it comes. The cup is trying to sink. It's going to push up to the conveyor.
BOTERO: And into a dumpster. Since the water wheel begin turning in May, it's removed more than 50 tons of trash from the harbor. That's made business owners very happy. Bill Flohr runs Baltimore's East Marina.
BILL FLOHR: The waterwheel's been a timesaver for us. It seems to be collecting probably 95 percent of what we normally had to pick up by hand.
BOTERO: The city used to catch the trash with crab nets.
FLOHR: I liken it to having a box of mice, letting them go in a gymnasium and having two people try to corral them. The mice spread out, the trash spreads out. And it's a long job to get it clean.
BOTERO: John Kellett and his nephew replace a full dumpster with an empty one, to get ready for the rainy night ahead.
KELLETT: Grab it, grab it, grab it, grab it, grab it, grab it, grab it. Now back up. There we go. Now you got it.
BOTERO: It's been a wet couple of days. And the waterwheel has already collected 11 tons of trash this week. But Kellett knows his invention doesn't solve Baltimore's trash problem. He's hoping the thousands of tourists, who see the waterwheel, realize every Cheetos bag that ends up on the ground, may eventually float by in the water. Baltimore wants to make the Inner Harbor clean enough for swimming by 2020. For NPR News, I'm Julia Botero.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.