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.