This water wheel is helping to clean up trash in the Baltimore Harbor

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This water wheel is helping to clean up trash in the Baltimore Harbor

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Some of history’s most innovative ideas come from simple beginnings.  One great example? Baltimore’s first water wheel-powered trash interceptor, which began as Ford F-150 owner John Kellett’s simple sketch on a cocktail napkin.  While serving as director of Baltimore’s Maritime Museum, the former shipbuilder would walk to work across a bridge above the Jones Falls River at the point where it met the Inner Harbor.  He was confronted daily by a floating mass of plastic bags, cans and cigarette butts that he felt reflected poorly on the city. Kellett knew that figuring out a way to corral the debris would dramatically improve both the harbor’s ecosystem and appearance. Kellett took his water- and solar-powered wheel idea to city leaders, who said if he could find the funding to build the water wheel—and it worked—they would buy it. Kellett turned his sketch into a model in his basement, then a working prototype, and finally the hardworking landmark.  Architect Steve Ziger designed the eco-responsible invention, whose structure was inspired by the Sydney Opera House. Since May 2014 it has pulled over 300 tons of trash from Baltimore’s prime tourist destination.

The water wheel’s impact has been felt both near and far. Locally, the wheel has been used to educate school and community groups about how trash discarded in Baltimore neighborhoods is carried via storm drains and sewers to the harbor. Kellett’s design has also inspired other cleanup efforts, not just in Baltimore’s Middle Branch and Outer Harbor tributaries, but also in India, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro—where Kellett is providing drawings and advice to help clear the rivers needed for the 2016 Summer Olympics. “I get a call or an email every single day, from nearly all of the world,” Kellett says. “The water wheel teaches us that when we creatively utilize technology, we can solve serious problems.”