Fort Worth is less than a year away from building its own version of “Mr. Trash Wheel” – a solar and water-powered machine that has found success in cities across the U.S. and could filter tons of floatable trash out of the Trinity River. 

After receiving council approval on Dec. 14, Fort Worth’s environmental department officially began accepting private donations to build at least two water wheels. The machines will funnel plastics and Styrofoam sitting on the water’s surface onto a conveyor belt and into a nearby dumpster. 

Each wheel has an upfront cost of $600,000, not including a $1 million budget to maintain them for a decade. City officials can accept no more than $2.5 million to fund the entirety of the Trinity River Waterwheels Initiative, according to the council resolution.

How does the technology work?

Litter floating down the river is funneled into the ‘mouth’ of the water wheel. Using solar and water energy, rakes lift litter out of the water and onto a slow-moving conveyor belt. As trash reaches the top of the belt, it lands in a dumpster emptied by a city crew.

In partnership with the Tarrant Regional Water District and the nonprofit Streams and Valleys, Fort Worth plans to install the wheels near downtown to clean the Clear and West Forks of the river and serve as public art displays, said code compliance director Brandon Bennett. 

An engineer identified the Henderson Street Bridge by Panther Island Pavilion and an area near Gateway Park as ideal locations because of the river’s current and depth, Bennett said. 

“We also wanted to place them near tourist attractions so that when people come to Fort Worth, they will hear about our water wheels and want to go down and see it,” Bennett said. “It also creates greater awareness in the community that all of the litter from around the city can end up in the river, especially with the wind blowing like it is.” 

Construction on Fort Worth’s first wheel could begin as early as next summer, with a planned completion date in the fall or early winter of 2022, Bennett said. The city expects a wheel to remove as much as 50,000 pounds of solid waste per day – the equivalent of 2.5 garbage trucks of litter. Two wheels could collect up to 400 tons of floating litter each year, according to Fort Worth’s estimates. 

Residents have long complained about the significant amount of litter visible in the river and its impact on the wildlife that rely on the Trinity for survival. Up to 95 percent of trash in the river comes from city streets and the drainage system rather than from nearby trails, according to Tarrant Regional Water District officials. 

Kathryn Hansen began noticing the piles of plastic and styrofoam in the summer of 2020, when residents were spending more time outdoors and utilizing the Trinity Trails for long walks and bike rides. She now sits on the board for Keep Fort Worth Beautiful, the city’s nonprofit arm focused on organizing neighborhood cleanups and improving recycling practices. 

“When you get down there, and you actually get your hands on it and start picking up trash up close, you realize it’s 1,000 times worse than you can even see from the trails,” Hansen said. “What can we do to make it better? It’s embarrassing for our city, and it’s terrible for the wildlife.” 

To address the issue, Bennett and other staff took inspiration from the success of Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel. Following the first installation in 2014, the googly-eyed machines became local mascots printed on T-shirts and craft beers. 

Since then, cities in California, Georgia and Wisconsin have developed their own wheels, which use a system of pulleys, rakes and two floating buoys to collect litter while deterring fish away from the machine before they can be harmed. 

Clearwater Mills, the company behind Baltimore’s wheels, designed a covered wagon-themed version for Fort Worth to celebrate the city’s “Where the West Begins” spirit. That design is subject to change depending on the input of several large corporate donors who have already offered funds to carry out the project, Bennett said.  

Shortly after learning of the city’s plans last fall, Hansen created the Friends of the Fort Worth Trash Wheel Facebook group to share updates on its progress. She hopes officials will consider giving the wheel a name and, most importantly, keeping the googly eyes that are a trademark of Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel. 

What comes next

Fort Worth is consulting with donors to fund two wheels. To learn more about donating or supporting the project, visit the Trinity River Waterwheels Initiative’s website or call 817-392-2046.

Turning the wheel into a character will open the door for educating students about litter prevention and fundraising opportunities through merchandise and events, Hansen said. 

“My only worry is that people are going to say, ‘Oh, it’s not that big of a deal because Mr. Trash Wheel will gobble it up,’ ” she added. “My concern is that people will become complacent. This is something that’s going to help an already huge problem, but we still have to do our part by making sure that we dispose of our trash responsibly.” 

Bennett plans to host a larger donor kickoff event next month, when the city will hold a “litter summit” and accept an award for winning the first-ever North Texas Community Cleanup Challenge, which ran from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31.

“We certainly don’t have the resources to pick up all of the litter in the city, so (the wheels) will complement our other efforts,” Bennett said. “This is a great opportunity, especially for large donors, because this is something that will happen with your money immediately. It’s something that will live on for many years.” 

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Haley Samsel

Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She previously covered the environment for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. She grew up in Plano and graduated from American University,...

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