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.