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New Trash Track Sensors Will Tell You Exactly Where Your Trash Goes

Researchers at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab have developed smart tags to be attached to individual pieces of your trash and send its location back in real time.

Where did that candy bar wrapper go after you tossed it in your trash bin?  Did that juice container with a #1 recycling symbol make it to the recycling center? As soon as we throw something away, we lose our connection to it.  We don’t stop to wonder where the trash goes – does it get burned, go to landfill, or get placed on a boat?

These questions and more will be answered by Trash Track, an information system designed to monitor the path your garbage takes when it leaves your bin.  Researchers at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab have developed smart tags to be attached to individual pieces of your trash and send its location back in real time. The mobile sensor is akin to a miniature cell phone, encased in a type of resin to ensure its durability throughout its journey.  Since cell phone technology is ubiquitous and cheap, Trash Track should be able to capture the location of trash globally.  The team is looking to expose the “removal chain” of trash.

It is estimated that roughly 50-80 percent of the waste generated in the US is shipped abroad to developing countries.  This is done legally, because the US has not signed the Basel Convention that prevents developing countries to export their waste.  However, inspection of some European ports has revealed the illegal export of large amounts of waste.  Governments who are looking to enforce this regulation will find Trash Track a useful device.  Local municipalities will also be eager to employ Trash Track.  The information can help reveal the strengths and weaknesses of their sanitary systems.  Most of today’s trash is e-waste that often falls out of the system and goes straight to landfill, where they bleed toxins into the soil.  Trash Track can find out where and why e-waste ends up where it does.

Outside the city, surely; but each year the city expands, and the street cleaners have to fall farther back. The bulk of the outflow increases and the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a wider perimeter.

-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities.

Finally, the project will serve to educate the public on issues of waste.  The overarching idea being that insight as to where one’s trash goes, can shape behavioral patterns.  Knowing the carbon footprint of your waste can lead towards more responsible actions.  The team is conducting studies in New York and Seattle and plans a public exhibition this fall in both cities.  They are asking for volunteers to donate their trash.  Suddenly, you may just feel a bit more connected to your trash can.

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Written By

Moiz Kapadia graduated from Rutgers University with a BS in mechanical engineering. He is currently working as an engineer for Arup and lives in Newark, NJ.


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