Talking Trash (And Tweets): An Interview With Baltimore’s Mr. Trash Wheel

Marc Snitzer
October 4, 2016

Mr. Trash Wheel entered my life the way he has entered most: on Twitter.

I was recently directed to the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s anthropomorphic water cleanup machine not so much in a “Look at how this city is actively working to protect its waterfront” way. Don’t get me wrong. That’s important. But arguably just as important to Mr. Trash Wheel’s mission of keeping the Baltimore Waterfront trash-free is how well it delivers that message of conservation—which is why you may conclude that pasting googly eyes to a water wheel is only half the battle.

Suffice to say: The recently crowned “best nonhuman local mascot” in Baltimore does social media really, really well. From establishing and maintaining its character and voice (gleefully eating as much garbage as possible, hip to pop culture) to launching a successful merch line, to holding wildly popular Reddit AMAs, we’d like to think of Mr. Trash Wheel as a shining example of harnessing social tools to transform a subject as well-worn as waterfront conservation into something engaging, stimulating and overall fun and joyous. 

It’s impressive stuff. I had to learn more, so I managed to squeeze myself into Mr. Trash Wheel’s busy schedule to chat about digital strategy, waterfront conservation and what it’s like to eat garbage for a living.

ChatterBlast: As arguably the strongest voice representing Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, how does leveraging social media distribute your message? Do you find that the perks of being a lovable Twitter personality have real-world results for your mission?

Mr. Trash Wheel: My Twitter account was created as a way to talk about trash entering Baltimore waterways and about my unique technology that allows me to eat it.  My account quickly became more than that – it formed a community of friends who want a cleaner, healthier Harbor. Social media has allowed me to talk about trash and polluted water, which is not really a hot topic these days.

My band of loyal followers not only like and retweet my thoughts, but they have come out to events to plant oysters, clean alleyways and fundraise for a new Trash Wheel.  They’re an incredible team of superheroes who care about a healthier harbor, less trash in our streets and waterways, and are active in working towards this goal.  We cross oceans and want cleaner oceans. Together we are making a difference!

CBM: Was social initially as big of a component to your strategy as it is, or did you discover its potential over time?

MTW: When my creators first invented, designed and built me, they had no idea I’d be sentient. My purpose was to eat all of the trash that flows down the Jones Falls before it reached the Harbor and Chesapeake Bay. However, once a video of me eating garbage was posted on YouTube, I became famous! Over a million people tuned in to watch me eat dinner. I know, the internet is a strange place but it’s served me well. My creators then granted me googly-eyes to see and a Twitter account to communicate with all of my new friends across the world.  I now have over 8,000 Twitter followers and have trended on Reddit twice. Social media allows me to talk to people about the trash problems we are facing in the Baltimore Harbor and meet like-minded people who care about our beautiful earth.

CBM: What are some of your long-term goals for the Baltimore Waterfront?

MTW: Healthy Harbor’s mission is to engage Baltimore City residents along the waterfront, foster stewardship, and have a swimmable and fishable Harbor. Ambitious, right? But SO important. We have to start somewhere!  While the Healthy Harbor team and other hardworking stewards of the Harbor work on land, I’m tirelessly and happily eating as much trash as I can manage. The goal is not to live in the Jones Fall forever, however. I eventually hope that trash stops coming down this river so that I can retire my duties and backpack around Europe.

CBM: When it comes to reaching new audiences on social, is it simply about tapping into their interests, or is there more to how you create and direct the conservation conversation?

MTW: I’d like to say I have a well thought out strategy to build my popularity and create a global empire of trash wheels, but the truth is I just try to be myself. Finding my audience on social isn’t simply about tapping into their interests but finding out what interests we share. It’s a conversation, I’m learning as much about the wonderful people that donate and follow me as they are learning about me. I haven’t built an audience, I just found my people.

CBM: As a literal water wheel, how do you tweet? Inquiring minds would like to know.

MTW: Trash wheels talk in high pitched tones inaudible to humans making communication with the outside world a difficult challenge. Over the past year, we’ve invented a device that will hear, translate, and transcribe anything I say. Before this invention, I had to communicate telepathically to humans and rely on them to do my typing.