MIT Using Electronic Tracking on Trash to Change Consumer Habits

MIT trash track prototype photo
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MIT developing special tags to track trash through sanitation systems. This is the second prototype so far. Images via MIT, credit E Roon Kang at SENSEable City Lab

MIT has just announced a new project that makes trash a whole lot more technical - Trash Track. The goal is to figure out exactly how much energy and effort goes into taking trash from homes to final disposal, which could help guide consumer choices about products while they're still on the shelves. The MIT research team is setting up camp in New York and Seattle, where it will endeavor to track trash through the systems to find out just what kind of resources we're investing in our sanitation systems.

MIT starbucks cup photo

First test deployment of a coffee cup in Seattle.

They're developing special tags that will go on each piece of trash. The tags are wireless location monitors, and the location of each piece of trash that gets tagged will be reported on a central server. The public will be able to view the real time movement of its trash as the MIT team works to find out and improve the cost and impact of trash on our environment. We'll be able to literally see that there is no "away" when we toss something into the garbage.

MIT online trash track image

"The study of what we could call the 'removal chain' is becoming as important as that of the supply chain," the lab's associate director, Assaf Biderman, explains. "Trash Track aims to make the removal chain more transparent. We hope that the project will promote behavioral change and encourage people to make more sustainable decisions about what they consume and how it affects the world around them."

"We hope that Trash Track will also point the way to a possible urban future: that of a system where, thanks to the pervasive usage of smart tags, 100 percent recycling could become a reality," says research assistant, Musstanser Tinauli.

If this experiment is able to make trash more visible, both literally and conceptually with the effects of trash on our economy and our ecosystems, then it's quite likely that the information could play an important role in shifting our consumption behaviors from the very start of the production stream. After all, we've talked about the amazing impact mapping and visualization can have on ratcheting up environmentalism. Maybe seeing everything we throw away is still actually out there will make us think twice about buying anything "disposable" or with excess packaging. The less trash, the better.

GreenOps is doing something similar with recyclables in hopes to encourage more people to recycle.

Now the only other question is what happens to those electronic tags when the experiment is over? The last thing we'd want to see is e-waste in landfills.