Views on part of the Chicago River looked different after the nonprofit Urban Rivers installed its first floating garden in 2017, part of a broader rewilding effort of the manmade channel in the Lincoln Park neighborhood. Much has been done to restore a river long synonymous with pollution, and the garden adds to that progress, yet the project organizers realized that trash – lots of it – remained a problem.
They’d set out in kayaks to remove debris tangled up in native plants on platforms meant to welcome birds, turtles, and fish and insects, but more cast-off plastic and other waste would be back later the same day. That’s when they realized they needed a better solution and its name is TrashBot.
The remote control TrashBot looks something like a tiny barge, just 2.5 feet long and wide. It skims across the surface with a mesh scoop attached to the front, and then deposits the food containers and bottles it collects at designated points. From there, the system gets some human help as people pick up the waste and sort through it, removing recyclables and making sure trash is properly disposed.
“We have assembled a TrashBot task force to tackle this issue head-on,” said Nick Wesley, a cofounder of Urban Rivers. “People who have experience in web development, people who have built drones, people who build MRI machines.”
The innovation led to TrashBot’s pilot run on the river this month, but it also led to a new realization that opens the project to the wider world. The TrashBot didn’t just work. It was actually really fun.
“We realized that we could possibly make this an interactive experience by linking the ‘Trashbot’ to our website and letting anyone, anywhere, help clean up the trash in the Chicago River,” the group said.
Once the TrashBot is fully operational, the plan is to offer the app so that it essentially becomes a video game. People who download the app can pick up trash on the river while they’re on a train commute or waiting for a doctor’s appointment, using a few spare minutes to clean up the reclaimed habitat. They’ll see the river through TrashBot’s water-level view as they remove waste affecting the floating gardens.
Urban Rivers says the model remains tethered so it won’t stray beyond range. That’s expected to one day be a mile as the initial floating garden expands into the “Wild Mile,” which supporters say will be the first such floating ecopark of its length anywhere in the world.
The goal of Wild Mile Chicago is to transform the entire section of the steel-walled channel with a wildlife-first focus. There’s no shoreline, so the floating platforms are installed to create the missing ecosystem. At the same time, the floating gardens clean the water by relying on phytoremediation, a natural process that relies on plants to filter the river and remove environmental contamination.
They also boost the capacity for marine life. Josh Yellin, another Urban Rivers cofounder, completed his master’s thesis on a smaller floating-garden model in 2013. He found a nearly 100 percent increase in the fish abundance in and around the installed garden, which led to more research and the broader vision to restore the industrial channel in one of the largest cities in the United States.
If it works as planned, the group wants to deploy the TrashBot in other cities too.