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MIT study tracks trash’s final journey electronically

A team of researchers from the MIT SENSEable City Lab recently embarked on a major project called Trash Track, which aims to get people thinking about what they throw away and how it impacts the environment. The project 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.

The preliminary results of Trash Track have been unveiled in two new exhibitions as part of the Toward the Sentient City exhibition, on view from Sept. 17 until Nov. 7 at the Architectural League in New York; and on Sept. 19 at the Public Library in Seattle.

“Our aim with Trash Track is to reveal the disposal process of our everyday objects,” says 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.”

TrashTrack.jpgSays Carl Rush, vp of Organic Growth for Waste Management, “We funded this study to see if there is a technology to help our entire industry become more efficient. We hope that when the results are analyzed, we will see ways to improve the logistics of waste—from our trucks, to our recycling, to our disposal systems.”

In mid-July, the Trash Track team began a deployment of 3,000 smart tags on waste objects in New York, Seattle, and London. Working with Waste Management, they are monitoring the path of the trash in real-time using the tags, which report location data to a central server at MIT, where it is processed and visualized into dynamic maps showing a slice of the city’s waste stream. "Our tags are similar to a small cell phone, but have no keyboard or screen,” explains Kristian Kloeckl, one of the project's leaders. “To maximize battery life, we use a fine-grain motion sensor within the tags, which currently lasts for up to two months on a single charge.”

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