Port of Baltimore’s Trash Navy

Part of the Baltimore's

Part of the Baltimore’s “TRASHCAT™ Fleet


“TRASHCAT™” operating off the Inner Harbor promenades

On a rainy day, it takes no time for a discarded cheese twisties plastic bag tossed into a gutter in Baltimore to wind up floating in its renowned Inner Harbor. And there are soda bottles sighted near the Aquarium. An empty pound jar of peanut butter drifts opposite the Science Center. Potato chip bags bob alongside the Governor’s yacht.

The job of doing water vacuum cleaner service falls to the Baltimore City Department of Public Works, which operates its own marine operations department to retrieve and haul a ton of soggy debris each day from the 52 miles of Patapsco River shoreline. “The nice little lady out there who sweeps her pavement and pushes all the trash in the gutter – she means well, but what she’s doing, she’s sending it down to us,” says J. Tony Jeffery, Chief of Marine Operations, Department of Public Works.

The dirt chain works like this: Any trash that makes its way into a storm sewer drain (the openings at most street corners – not the pipes from kitchen and bathroom waste water) will eventually turn up bobbing in the harbor. That detritus can be anything from a soft drink can to an elm tree limb. Even a refrigerator will wind up in the harbor. Thanks to its insulation, the kitchen icebox will float. Unloaded auto tires are particularly obnoxious. People seem to toss them as they would a gum wrapper. About 50 tires regularly arrive in the harbor after a prolonged summer downpour.

Housecleaning the harbor is no easy chore. There are more than 100 storm sewer openings (interconnected with a network of city sewer and gutters) along the sides of the Patapsco River. Still more storm sewers flow into the Jones Falls, the stream that flows from North Baltimore to the harbor and is its single greatest trash source. Gwynns Falls also acts as a trash conduit into the Patapsco’s Middle Branch.

It’s up to the city’s trash navy to fight this harbor nuisance. On most days, you’ll see the city’s trash retriever boats – marine trash skimmers called “TRASHCATS™” – working alongside the tourist-oriented boats – paddle boas, water taxis and even visiting Tall Ships. The retrievers skim the water surface with conveyor belts to pick up debris.

The “TRASHCATS™” were designed and built by United Marine International, an affiliate of Baltimore-based Ellicott International.

Trash has a tendency to collect in the water just off the Inner Harbor brick promenades near Harbor place, one of the places where it’s more likely to be noticed by visitors. Another nettlesome floating trash lagoon is off Brown’s Wharf at Fells Point – ironically, another popular tourist mecca.

“It’s the low tides that unleash the trash that has settled under the piers and marina. I can have the Inner Harbor cleaned spotless and the tide can go out and it looks like we weren’t even there,” says Jeffery. Tom Finnerty, the supervisor of public works marine operations, use a small radio to direct the retrievers and some 22-foot-long Romarine boats to places in the harbor where the stuff has collected.

4 Years & 1500+ Tons of floating debris later…

In 1989, the first year that full statistics were kept, some 317 tons of trash were fished out of the harbor. In 1990, 442 tons; 1991, 364 tons. And this wet year, 372 tons and counting. June was particularly troublesome. Four storms in two days flushed 60 tons of mess through sewers into the drink.

The City’s fleet of “TRASHCATS™” includes three different sizes of machines, each with a separate capacity best-suited to a particular area in the harbor.