One Man's Trash is…Well, Trash: MIT Announces Trash Track Program


Would you be so cavalier in throwing out a disposable razor if you knew how much it actually impacted your local environments? Would you think twice about purchasing a bottle of water if you knew how much it cost you to dispose of? That’s the question asked by the MIT SENSEable City lab these days. And they plan to see what effects one man’s trash actually has on the environment.

Inspired by the Green NYC Initiative which aims to increase the rate of waste recycling in New York to almost 100 percent by 2030 (currently, only about 30 percent of the city’s waste is diverted from landfills for recycling!), a group of MIT researchers have developed a program that uses special electronic tags in order to track different types of waste on their journey through the disposal systems of New York and Seattle. Its name? Trash Track. Trash Track will monitor the patterns and costs of urban disposal while raising public awareness about the impacts the garbage can under the sink has on the environment.

“Trash is one of today’s most pressing issues – both directly and as a reflection of our attitudes and behaviors,” says Professor Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT SENSEable City lab. “Our project aims to reveal the disposal process of our everyday objects, as well as to highlight potential inefficiencies in today’s recycling and sanitation systems.” He called the project an urban equivalent of nuclear medicine in which tracers are injected and followed.

Studies of the supply chain – any sequence of processes involved in the production and distribution of a commodity – have been in the spotlight before, generally highlighting the impacts that one item’s production has on the world. But the supply chain isn’t alone on the stage.

“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.”

The aim, then, is to educate. A worthy goal if I say so myself. But what will grease the gears of this dirty project?

Trash Track will enlist volunteers in the two target cities, New York and Seattle. The volunteers will allow pieces of their trash to be electronically tagged with special wireless location markers, or ‘trash tags.’ Thousands of these markers, attached to a waste – representative sample of the city’s overall consumption – will calculate their location through triangulation and report it to a central server. There the data will be analyzed and processed in real time, allowing the public to view the migration patterns of the trash online. The real time travel log can also be viewed in an exhibit at the Architectural League in New York City and in the Seattle Public Library, starting in September 2009.

“Carlo Ratti and his team have come up with a visionary project to help people take ownership of their pollution,” says Roger Highfield, editor of New Scientist magazine, which will be helping to deploy a third batch of tags in London, U.K. “It’s all too easy to throw something in the garbage and wash your hands of it if you don’t know what effect you are directly having on the environment.”

Rather than wash our hands of our trash, let us be responsible and wash ourselves clean of years of complacency. We have wallowed in bad habits for too long, and now is the time to change. In a very real sense (which will soon be shown to all who have eyes to see), what goes around comes around. I, for one, don’t want my trash winding its way back to me.

Photo Credit: Ted Abbott via flickr under Creative Commons License

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