Public Works: The Amazing Self-Powered Garbage-Trapping Machine
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Public Works: The Amazing Self-Powered Garbage-Trapping Machine

Meet the trash-collecting contraption that's cleaning up Baltimore's harbour.

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

Image courtesy of Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, Inc.

Baltimore has a serious environmental problem. The East Coast city famous for its hard-nosed Iron Men has dropped the ball on water quality. Last week, news broke that Baltimore Inner Harbor had “failed” its annual environmental assessment—a marked decline from last year’s report. It’s a grim fate for one of the United States’ oldest, biggest seaports. The Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore, which co-produced the water quality study, believes the health of the harbour can be improved considerably over the next six years—and a water wheel–powered garbage vacuum is an integral part of its plan.

Created in 2005 by local businesses, property owners, and interest groups in conjunction with the municipal government, the partnership has been designated the “chief advocate, promoter, and steward” of Baltimore Inner Harbor. Its large-scale Healthy Harbor Initiative aims to make Baltimore’s water fit for swimming and fishing by 2020. A vital component of this project is getting the trash out of the water—and the most direct and efficient way to do that involves something called a Solar-Powered Water Wheel Trash Interceptor.

Invented by Clearwater Mills LLC, the Interceptor floats at the mouth of the Jones Falls river, through which garbage used to flow into the inner harbour. Now booms (floating barriers) direct debris towards the 4.3-metre-tall garbage collection machine. Spring-charged rakes claw the refuse onto a conveyor belt, which is powered by a water wheel spun by solar-powered pump. The belt carts the garbage into a dumpster, which, once full, is dragged by boat to a waste-to-energy conversion plant.

This is the second generation of water wheel trash interceptor used in Baltimore. A smaller version skimmed harbour garbage from 2008 to 2011. But the new one, installed just this spring, is far mightier, and expected to collect up to 362,874 kg of junk per year. And just watch this bugger go.

The Solar-Powered Water Wheel Trash Interceptor belongs in Toronto’s harbour. This city’s waterfront has its own troubles caused by debris washed off roads and through drains. Up until March 2012, Harbourfront Centre cleaned its slips with a City-owned paddle wheel–powered watercraft that scooped up surface debris. But when it applied to the City for another year of use, it was denied. Now, solid waste in the slips has to be corralled by Harbourfront gladiators with pitchforks and nets, then dumped by hand onto a trash barge in a process rather less dignified than minding a self-powered garbage-trapping-unit.

Torontonians are exceptionally lucky to have access to Lake Ontario and its tributaries. Though not pristine, they’re in a better state than they have been in decades, and they’re undergoing more cleanup all the time. But as a city that sits on the Great Lakes—which represent more than a fifth of the Earth’s entire fresh water supply—Toronto deserves a world-class water-cleaning innovation. No sense waiting, like Baltimore, until conditions are truly dismal.