A clean revolution?

Inventor hopes water wheel will beautify harbor by sifting out Jones Falls trash

October 22, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

As he walked to work each morning, John Kellett had a view of the Inner Harbor, downtown Baltimore's tallest buildings and the mouth of the Jones Falls. The trouble with Kellett is that he couldn't keep his eyes off the trash.

"People would look off this bridge and say, `This harbor's disgusting,'" said Kellett, referring to the soda bottles, takeout food containers and candy wrappers floating in the water under a footbridge. "A lot of people's first impression of the harbor was this trash."

So Kellett began playing with ideas -- on the back of a cocktail napkin, no less -- to stem the tide of debris and came up with a mill-like water-wheel device that Baltimore officials now hope will scoop up much of the city's refuse before it ever reaches the harbor.

The trash interceptor, which is expected to be in place at the base of the Jones Falls next month, will use the stream's current to turn a 12-foot water wheel attached to a conveyor belt. Trash will be lifted onto the belt and move about 3 feet per minute toward a nearby trash bin.

Public works crews expect they will need to empty the bin every few days, on average.

A floating base will support the wheel and the conveyor belt, and the contraption will rise and fall with the tide, similar to a dock. Two floating booms will run diagonally from the Jones Falls' banks to the mouth of the device, directing the trash its way.

Baltimore employs a fleet of trash skimmers to collect about 200 tons of debris in the harbor each year -- especially significant considering much of it is Styrofoam and light plastic. The trash flows in from streams such as the Jones Falls and Harris Creek after it is washed into storm drains during heavy rains.

The city also uses a series of booms and nets to corral the trash, but that can create an unsightly pileup of debris close to shore.

Kellett, on leave as director of the Baltimore Maritime Museum, was working on the project about the same time Mayor Sheila Dixon entered office and launched her campaign to make the city "cleaner and greener." Kellett approached the city, and the project was approved by the Board of Estimates in January. In June, he started working on it full time.

Under the arrangement, the Abell Foundation paid $375,000 for the interceptor. If it works, the city will reimburse the foundation. Dixon said the trash collector fits with her administration's broader mission of improving the city's image and health by cleaning it up.

"When you look at the Inner Harbor and you see nothing but bottles and containers and trash ... it's just absurd. You can come right over, and it just lays there," Dixon said. "Part of this whole clean campaign is we want our waterways to be clean, we want our streets to be clean and we want our schools to be clean."

Baltimore has tried several ideas in past years to limit the amount of trash that winds up in the harbor. Recently, the city began installing a series of nets across trash-prone storm drain discharges. Officials are also engaged in a street-sweeping study to determine whether there are more effective ways to keep contaminants from entering the water system.

City public works officials said the best way to reduce trash going into the harbor is to persuade residents not to throw it onto streets and sidewalks in the first place, and also to reinforce the importance of removing rubbish from storm drains. Nonetheless, the department will be eyeing Kellett's invention closely.

"You need people to push the envelope," said William Stack, chief of DPW's water-quality section. "Let's keep our fingers crossed."

Kellett, who has served as a shipwright and a restorer of Civil War-era homes, is convinced that the interceptor will work and that Baltimore will want to make wide use of it. He said the design was inspired by a hay baler he remembers seeing on a farm he grew up on near Gettysburg, Pa. He was also influenced by the water-powered mills that once dotted the shores of the Jones Falls.

He has started a company, Clearwater Mills, and said he hopes Baltimore will be a model for cities wrestling with floating trash.

For the most part, the interceptor will work on its own. If the current is not strong enough to move the wheel, Kellett has built in a pump -- powered by a solar-panel charged battery -- that will push water over the wheel. The system will be covered so that wind does not blow trash off the conveyor, but the wheel's movement will be visible from the shore.

"The simplicity is the best part of it. As I thought about this idea, it just got more simple," Kellett said. "If [city officials] thought I was crazy, they didn't say so. I think they're looking for anything that can help."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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