2 googly eyes and a dream: How Mr. Trash Wheel went viral and conquered Baltimore.

When a group of local business leaders decided to make the Baltimore harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020, they quickly realized they needed to get weird.

"We wanted to install a device that would immediately reduce the amount of trash going into the Baltimore harbor," explains Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore's Healthy Harbor Initiative.

The solution came from local sailor and inventor John Kellett who, after years of noticing trash floating in the Jones Falls River, had installed a pilot "trash wheel" in the harbor in 2008. The Waterfront Partnership commissioned a permanent version that sits at the mouth of the river, scooping up discarded plastic on a solar-powered conveyor belt and depositing it into a series of dumpsters.


The group dubbed the faceless machine "Mr. Trash Wheel."

The original Mr. Trash Wheel. Photo by Sarr Cat/Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, it has pulled over a million pounds of trash out of the water, inspiring a historical marker, a beer, an e-book, a painting, and dozens of Halloween costumes. Neat as he was, Mr. Trash Wheel's success and popularity were in no way preordained.

How did a group of business owners, environmentalists, and activists turn a giant, floating dumpster into an unofficial mascot of Baltimore?

They brought him to life.

Becoming Mr. Trash Wheel

Mr. Trash Wheel is on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (not Snapchat; he hasn't figured it out yet). The first thing you notice when you start following him are his large, playful, googly eyes — eyes that were not attached to the real-life Mr. Trash Wheel (at least at first). The second thing you notice is how delightfully off-kilter and specifically human he is. Like a comic relief character from a good Pixar film.

His voice was originally created by Justin Allen of Baltimore ad agency What Works Studios in 2014. In the summer of 2015, the handle passed to Robyn Stegman, who's been operating it — and refining Mr. Trash Wheel's personality — ever since.  

"I started [as] the voice of Mr. Trash Wheel the week before we found the snake," says Stegman, who heads the trash wheel project for the mission-driven agency ChangingMedia.

The snake she's referring to is an escaped ball python that crawled up Mr. Trash Wheel's conveyor belt and wrapped itself around a control box about two years ago. Stegman described the ensuing media storm as a "trial by fire."

"It really helped me very early on build my voice and get that Mr. Trash Wheel voice in my head," she says.

The first thing she decided was that the 15-foot long, garbage-eating steampunk river cleaner would have a cheesily well-developed sense of humor.

"As soon as I started making snake puns, you had 20 other followers that were making hilarious other snake jokes," she explains. "So it became really great that way."

Stegman continues to infuse Mr. Trash Wheel with her own "nerdom and geekdom," which has endeared him to fans around the city. He loves "Star Wars." He makes "Lord of the Rings" fan art. He writes "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels and has spent hours answering questions on Reddit. Occasionally, he participates in local events.

"[Robyn] just has a crazy, funny mind," Lindquist says.

The plan wasn't always to create a trash wheel with such a vivacious personality. The idea to turn Mr. Trash Wheel into a bonafide citywide star came after a video of the device that went viral a few months after its installation in May 2014.

Soon Mr. Trash Wheel had his own Twitter account and those distinctive googly eyes, thanks to a quick photo editing job.

After the snake incident, the trash wheel's popularity soared, leading fans to demand that the real-life Mr. Trash Wheel take on some of the personality of the online version. A petition to mount actual googly eyes on the device was launched. The eyes were added later that year.

Mr. Trash Wheel plus eyes. Photo by Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons.

"It really looks like a muppet of some sort, you know?" Lindquist says.

Not everyone was a fan of Mr. Trash Wheel's social media presence initially.

That included Kellett, who worried the device's "90% great" social feed could divert attention from the rigorous work of cleaning up the waterway.  

"The googly eyes don’t help people take it seriously," he told National Geographic in February. "People sometimes think it’s a sculpture."

Stegman says the character's lightheartedness is part of a trade off to deliver a pro-conservation message to as broad an audience as possible.

"We've had conversations about how it doesn't appeal to really a lot of true environmental advocates," she explains. "But we want to focus more on getting everyone involved. Because it really is something that requires a large groundswell of individuals in order to really start pushing legislation or starting to push consumer shifts to address this issue."

Professor Trash Wheel joins her friend in the harbor

Partially in response to the criticism, the group decided when the city installed a second trash wheel, it would create a more cerebral character to the trash wheel universe and introduced the city to Professor Trash Wheel. Unlike her colleague across the harbor, Professor Trash Wheel is a scientist. Stegman describes her voice as a mix between "Beyoncé and Eleanor Roosevelt," with a little bit of Ada Lovelace tossed in.

"Her Twitter following is so much more ocean scientists and ocean advocates because we’re posting much more about the science behind ocean plastics and ocean trash," Stegman explains.

The trash wheels' unique personalities have elevated their status as a local heroes.

They were even the subject of a musical tribute earlier this year.

"It’s one of the catchier songs about solid waste disposal that’s out there," says Jonathan Jensen, bassist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the composer and lyricist behind "Mr. Trash Wheel." The upbeat, Dixieland thumper has become a kind of unofficial anthem for the harbor restoration project after its debut at a launch event for a trash wheel-themed microbrew, Mr. Trash Wheel's Lost Python Ale.

Mr. Trash Wheel got his very own song! It was written by Jonathan Jensen (on piano) and performed by Tongue in Cheek at last weekend's beer launch at Peabody Heights Brewery, LLC.We are currently seeking a donation of studio time so that everyone can hear this epic masterpiece.

Posted by Healthy Harbor on Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jensen, who hadn't seen the trash wheel when he dreamed up the song, was immediately taken with the character via social media. He believes the rabid fan response is a tribute to the "creativity and quirkiness" of the local community and art scene.

"[Mr. Trash Wheel's] got his own Facebook page, and the posts are in the first person, so you feel like this is a character of some kind," Jensen says. "It's just fun."

Stegman believes the key to the trash wheels' popularity is their authentic, human enthusiasm, which is difficult to fake. "I think that one thing that fans really appreciate about Mr. Trash Wheel is that we’re not afraid to go super weird with them and meet them at the spaces they already are," she says.

And the enthusiasm seems to be spilling over into real life. Last month, the group launched Trash-Free Tuesday, encouraging fans to pick up trash and litter on Tuesday and tag their photos and enticing them with a series of Mr. Trash Wheel prize packages.

On Nov. 18, over 100 fans reported to a warehouse to sift through the refuse collected by the trash wheels to "audit" the contents.

"We posted it once on social media, and we were sold out within three days," Lindquist says. "And we were worried about whether we would actually have fans that would come wake up early on a Saturday morning and dig through literal trash. But it’s amazing to see how fans respond to that."

Meanwhile, the trash wheels' fan club has gone global. "We just heard from a teacher in Ecuador that’s using Mr. Trash Wheel to teach about ocean trash in her classroom," Stegman says.

The Waterfront Partnership's ultimate goal is to get the harbor clean enough to put the trash wheels out of business.

In the meantime, the group has big plans for the project. A new trash wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, is set to debut in South Baltimore's Masonville Cove in 2018. In the meantime, the fans, ever vigilant, have organized a petition to "promote" Mr. Trash Wheel to a more senior rank.

"It's been such a crazy, wild ride," Stegman says.

All thanks to a solar-powered garbage-eating raft with a personality as big as the Chesapeake Bay.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

via Pixabay

Over the past six years, it feels like race relations have been on the decline in the U.S. We've lived through Donald Trump's appeals to America's racist underbelly. The nation has endured countless murders of unarmed Black people by police. We've also been bombarded with viral videos of people calling the police on people of color for simply going about their daily lives.

Earlier this year there was a series of incidents in which Asian-Americans were the targets of racist attacks inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Given all that we've seen in the past half-decade, it makes sense for many to believe that race relations in the U.S. are on the decline.

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