MIT Reveals Results of Experiment to Electronically Track Trash

trash trac tag photo

Photos via MIT

Back in July, MIT launched an experiment to track trash through the various disposal systems via RFID tags and see if the ability to visualize what happens to trash - and the fact that there is no "away" - might change consumer habits and lighten the burden we place on the environment with all our "disposable" goods. The first results of the experiment are in, and they're being shown off at two exhibitions.

Trash Track uses custom-designed electronic tags to track different types of waste on their final journey through the disposal systems of New York, London, and Seattle. Waste Management funded the study which, in July, let loose some 3,000 smart tags on waste objects in New York, Seattle, and London. The team has been monitoring the path of the trash in real-time, with the tags reporting location data to a central server at MIT. The information shows up on dynamic maps, where it can be monitored and analyzed.

"Our tags are similar to a small cell phone, but have no keyboard or screen. To maximize battery life, we use a fine-grain motion sensor within the tags, which currently last for up to two months on a single charge," says Kristian Kloeckl, one of the project's leaders.

The Toward the Sentient City exhibition, on view from Thursday, September 17 until November 7 at the Architectural League in New York and the Public Library in Seattle will show off the results gathered so far, and visitors will be able to see the paths various disposable items like a starbucks coffee cup and a yogurt cup have taken.

trash track mug path image

"Our aim with Trash Track is to reveal the disposal process of our everyday objects. " said Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab. "The project could be considered the urban equivalent of nuclear medicine --where a tracer is injected and followed through the human body to reveal how a system functions."

Waste Management is very interested in the results as well, hoping that finding out more about how trash goes through the systems will help them improve their logistics, from trash transportation to recycling to disposal systems. But Waste Management isn't the only thing the experiment hopes to improve - the researchers want to get at the root of the problem: how we treat consumables in the first place.

"Trash Track has the potential to encourage people to make more sustainable decisions about what and how much they consume, and how it affects the world around them," said Assaf Biderman, Associate Director of the SENSEable City Lab. "The project represents a type of change that is taking place in cities: a bottom-up approach to managing resources, promoting more informed decision-making in the public through the use of pervasive technologies and information."

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