Society | DOI: 10.1145/1666420.1666429
Researchers are focusing on the so-called “removal chain”
in an attempt to save landfill space, improve recycling rates,
and trim the flow of toxic materials into the environment.
In a WorLd where the move- ment of goods—everything from pallets of breakfast cereal to computer components— is tracked with precision, it’s
nothing short of remarkable that trash
and recyclables are generally discarded
without a thought. Worldwide, humans
generate more than 2 billion tons of
waste annually. In the U.S., each individual produces about 1. 5 tons of solid
waste per year. Unfortunately, no one
knows exactly how all the waste flows,
where it goes, and how it can be managed more effectively.
This situation may soon change,
however. Researchers are now focusing on the so-called “removal chain” in
an attempt to address a long-standing
problem: how to save landfill space, improve recycling rates, and trim the flow
of toxic materials into the environment.
Using barcodes, passive and active radio
frequency identification (RFID) tags,
cellular transmitters, and other technologies, they’re putting a high-tech
spin on what has long been a low tech
and mostly unmanageable problem.
Pho ToGrAPh by KATE rAynEs, VIsuALIZATIon by sEnsEAbLE CI Ty LAb, MI T
It’s certainly more than a throwaway
idea. Trash-tracking technology provides a number of benefits, including
the ability to follow individual items,
components, and subcomponents
through the disposal process to ensure
that they are recycled or disposed of
correctly; gauge how effectively curb-side recycling programs work and use
incentives to boost participation rates;
and weigh trucks as they go to landfills
to better understand loads and how to
establish more efficient routes and service patterns.
“The study of what we could call the
‘removal chain’ is becoming as important as that of the supply chain,” states
Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable
City Laboratory at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT). Ratti
and a select group of researchers are
In July 2009, mIt’s trashtrack team deployed 3,000 smart tags on waste objects in new
York, Seattle, and London, facilitating the monitoring of the trash’s path in real time.
among those tagging trash and exploring how society can deal with it more
effectively. Notes Valerie Thomas, associate professor in the School of Public
Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, “Waste is a topic that society must
address more effectively. We must find
ways to reduce waste and make recycling easier and more streamlined.”
trash Gets Smart
The idea of giving trash brains is ultimately about dollars, yen, euros, and
good sense. At present, it’s often next
to impossible to assure that trash is
routed to the best possible destination
for disposal or recycling. “The problem
with the current system is that there is
little understanding or control of the
waste stream. In many cases, trash
and recycling materials don’t wind up
where they are supposed to go to,” observes Lewis Girod, a research scientist
at MIT who designed the tags for the
SENSEable City Laboratory project.
That may soon change. The SENSE-
able City project, in place in New York
and Seattle, aims to better understand
the removal chain and boost recycling
rates. A system called Trash Track uses
hundreds of small, smart, and location-
aware tags as a first step toward the de-
ployment of “smart-dust” networks of
tiny locatable and addressable micro-
electromechanical systems. Research-
ers attach the tags to different types of
trash in order to follow objects through
a city’s waste management system.
This reveals the final journey of items
in a series of real-time visualizations.
MIT displays the information at the
Seattle Public Library and the Architec-
tural League of New York.