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September 1, 2011

Trash mill trashed?


Baltimore's "trash mill" is gone - for good, or ill?

The distinctive floating litter collector has been towed from the Harris Creek storm-drain outfall in Canton, where it has kept tons of refuse out of the Inner Harbor - when it wasn't broken.

Celeste Amato, spokeswoman for the city's Department of Public Works, said it was broken and was taken away to be checked over by a consultant, who'll see what it needs to be fixed. Amato wrote in an email that "it cannot be repaired in place and was removed pending a decision on how to move forward."

Its removal upset John Kellett, who built the device evoking one of the historic water mills that once lined Baltimore's streams. Like those mills, it used a waterwheel to turn a conveyor belt, which lifted floating trash into a dumpster at the back of the shed housing the device.  Solar and wind power or water currents were supposed to turn the wheel.

But the innovative facility, which cost the city $375,000, has had a troubled three-year life. It was originally placed where the Jones Falls empties into the Inner Harbor, then moved to Canton after being deemed not large enough to handle all the debris that pours out of the falls after a storm. At the Harris Creek outfall, it captured upwards of five tons of plastic, paper and foam cups, plates, boxes and bottles every month. Its novel design and appearance also earned it support from residents who wanted to see the harbor and their neighborhoods free of unsightly and unsanitary litter. 

The wheel has been prone to breakdowns, however, and hasn't been operational much of this year. Its inventor has sparred with public works officials over its care and repair.

"From my observations, the city hasn't made any efforts to make it work for a while," Kellett said in a voicemail message he left me. He said the city never responded to his offer of free technical assistance, and had re-engineered the device in a way he thought was sure to fail.

Kellett, at one time director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum and now managing agent for Clearwater Mills, a local firm that makes trash interceptors, had hoped the mill would lead to other similar devices for automatically collecting the unsightly floating debris that fouls the Inner Harbor. Instead the city hired a consultant to evaluate the technology and whether it makes sense to keep using it, much less replicate it elsewhere on the harbor's two dozen outfalls - many of them conduits for litter washed off city streets into storm drains.

Amato, the public works spokeswoman, said the consultant's review is ongoing. Meanwhile, she said, the city has strung a boom in front of the Harris Creek outfall to corral floating debris, where it can be picked up by the skimmers and bass boats operated by city workers.

"We are back to what we always did," she wrote in an email, noting that even when the wheel was working, some trash had to be manually fished out of the water because it got trapped in corners and other places.

The mill's removal is seen by some as a step backward in the struggle to clean up the Inner Harbor, which is so marred by trash that Baltimore is one of the few cities in the country ordered by state and federal environmental agencies to come up with a plan for eliminating it.

The mill's removal was an especially bitter pill for Dr. Ray Bahr, a retired physician in Canton who's spearheaded a campaign to clean up and green up the East Baltimore neighborhoods that drain into the Harris Creek outfall. When it was working, he said, the device helped community leaders gauge how they were doing in policing their streets and alleys. (BTW, Bahr says public radio station WAMU 88.5 FM will carry a story about the harbor cleanup efforts at 1 p.m. Friday and again at 7 a.m. Saturday.)

FWIW, Baltmore scores sixth from the bottom for cleanliness in a ranking by visitors of 35 cities by Travel & Leisure magazine.

(Baltimiore Sun photos: Top, water wheel in 2008 at mouth of Jones Falls, by Amy Davis; bottom, John Kellett with wheel in Canton in 2009, by Tim Wheeler)

Posted by Tim Wheeler at 11:50 AM | | Comments (3)


I would be very sorry to see the trash mill go.

The mill did a fantasic job of reducing floating litter in the Inner Harbor, when it was being maintained properly.

John Kellett deserves great praise as an innovator and hero of the Inner Harbor who really got his hands dirty trying to solve Baltimore's biggest eyesore.

Other cities around the country have solved this floating litter problem by investing in hardware to catch or filter out the trash. There is no reason Baltimore can't solve this problem, too. All it takes is a little investment -- which will more than be repayed with improved tourism.

I appreciated Tim Wheeler's reporting on the Trash Mill's status as well as the kind words from Tom Pelton. Clearwater Mills discovered during the trial periods at the Jones Falls and Harris Creek that the trash problem in Baltimore's Inner Harbor is solvable, and the investment required to implement the solution is not more than the City is currently spending. Although we appreciated the willingness of City leaders to try new technologies, we found that many in the DPW were wedded to the status quo and not willing to support an innovative approach. In the eight month trial period at the Jones Falls the waterwheel collected more than three times the amount of trash and debris that the city estimated as total flow from the outfall.More than 500,000 pounds of trash was collected with very few mechanical problems. With regular maintenance the trash mill proved to be reliable and more cost effective than the netting system that had been in place at Harris Creek. When the City took over the operations of the machine, the routine maintenance prescribed in the owner's manual was not performed, and predictably, like a car that doesn't get an oil change, experienced mechanical problems. The world's first waterwheel powered trash interceptor, using innovative sustainable technology, has proven it can help change Baltimore's status as one of the dirtiest cities in America. Clearwater Mills appreciates the Abell Foundation's support of the pilot program of this project, and we have already designed a next generation trash mill with improvements to make it more reliable and cost effective. We would look forward to working with the City to improve the Harbor with this green, locally designed technology.

As a city taxpayer and clean water advocate, I would be more than willing for my tax dollars to pay for John Kellett's next generation trash mill.

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About the bloggers
Tim WheelerTim Wheeler reports on the environment and Chesapeake Bay. A native of West Virginia, he has focused mainly on Maryland's environment since moving here in 1983. Along the way, he's crewed aboard a skipjack in the bay, canoed under city streets up the Jones Fall from the Inner Harbor, and gone deep underground in a western Maryland coal mine. He loves seafood, rambles in the country and good stories. He hopes to share some here.

Contributor Christy Zuccarini has been blogging about the local DIY craft scene for a year for She brings her pespective on all things handmade to B'More Green, where she will highlight projects you can do yourself as well as crafters who are integrating sustainable methods and materials.

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