Mr. Trash Wheel in water (Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore)
Mr. Trash Wheel once collected almost 20,000 kilograms of garbage in a single day. (Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore)

Plastic always surfaced in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor after it rained. An eyesore for the touristy waterfront, pollution would travel from Maryland‘s largest city into the Chesapeake Bay, a vital watershed that supports drinking water, fishing and other industries for more than 18 million people from Virginia to New York.

One resident approached the city with a crazy idea — could he build a floating garbage scooper to help take out the trash?

Thus, Mr. Trash Wheel was born. The contraption looks like a snail with googly eyes, and has made Baltimore’s waterfront the cleanest it’s been in decades. Coastal cities including Rio de Janeiro, Panama City and Lombok, Indonesia, are looking to replicate his success.

Here’s how the trash collecting works:

Floating booms funnel garbage into Mr. Trash Wheel’s mouth. Rotating forks then lift the rubbish and plop it onto a conveyor belt. When the trash reaches the top, it falls into a floating dumpster.

A giant water wheel connected to a system of gears powers the collection. When the water’s current moves too slowly, solar power keeps everything moving.

Dumpster filled with trash (Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore)
Mr. Trash Wheel shows off the results of harbor-cleaning after a storm. (Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore)

Since Mr. Trash Wheel started churning in May 2014, he has chomped through 500,000 kilograms of debris, which is burned to help generate electricity for the city.

His tireless work beautifying the harbor has made Mr. Trash Wheel a celebrity: He’s got almost 1.5 million views on YouTube and even his own Twitter account.

Alice Volpitta of Blue Water Baltimore said the anthropomorphic wheel is getting residents excited about water quality. “On the other hand, I really wish we could starve out Mr. Trash Wheel.”

Mr. Trash Wheel was joined in December by a colleague, Professor Trash Wheel. She’s got eyelashes, an advanced degree and a tenured position cleaning another part of the harbor.

The wheels’ diet comes mostly from land-based litter that washes into streams and rivers. Sometimes, debris gets weird. Adam Lindquist, a director at the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, recently fished an acoustic guitar out of the dumpster.

“I’m looking forward to restringing it,” he said, adding that he hoped it picked up some local characteristics — “that Baltimore, Jones Fall River sound.”