Technology in the Trash

New Technology / by Elizabeth Lindhardt /

In the Trash Track project, garbage becomes a window through which we are able to see our once invisible and energy-intensive removal chain, prompting us to consider the impact of our waste.

Carlo Ratti and his team at MIT’s SENSEable City lab have chosen a strange proving ground for their sophisticated new tracking technology: urban waste management systems. Not afraid to get their hands dirty, they are attaching electronic tags to different kinds of refuse and plotting how it gets from garbage cans to land fills and recycling centers in real time. The project, called Trash Track, will throw light on how waste is processed, exposing and correcting inefficiencies in the system and encouraging individuals to own their pollution.

Initially, the project will be deployed in Seattle and New York, where Ratti’s team will recruit volunteers to take tags and track their own waste. “We want to tag the trash that represents well the overall kinds of things that you’d find in the domestic waste stream but also put some focus on those items that have a particular impact on the environment,” says Assaf Biderman, associate director of the project.

By plotting the paths of discarded coke bottles, cardboard boxes, and televisions, Ratti and his team want to find ways to improve the system, reducing carbon emissions, relieving traffic congestion in cities (fewer garbage trucks), and increasing the amount of garbage that is diverted from landfills into recycling and composting facilities. “We want to see if we can develop situations or scenarios of minimum waste, meaning we know where every resource is, where every object is, and we can actually utilize them in an optimal way,” Biderman says. “And the industry is very interested in the type of information we’re collecting,” he adds.

This project has already garnered attention from environmentalists, utility companies, and government officials. “Since this project has been out in the press you wouldn’t believe how many cities have approached us to do this,” Biderman says. In Seattle, the Trash Track team is already sharing information with Seattle Public Utilities, the very system they are critiquing.

“Seattle is wonderful for two reasons: One is oysters and the other is their waste management system,” Biderman jokes. While US cities only recycle about 30 percent of their waste on average, Seattle recycles 50 percent. This impressive figure is largely due to their sophisticated recycling complexes which are able to process everything from food scraps to motor oil, but it is also a product of greater awareness among individual citizens about the impact of trash. Since Seattleites pay by the load for garbage removal, they already have an incentive to waste less. Biderman believes that if more people were exposed to information about how much waste they produce and its impact on the environment, they would be prompted to change their behavior. “In this closing of a feedback loop, I think there is an essential opportunity to raise awareness,” he says.

Brett Slav, the senior planning and development specialist of Seattle Public Utilities says he is quite interested in the Trash Track data. “We hope this project will demonstrate that when one recycles, it truly does give their recyclables a ‘second life’ that saves energy and natural resources and creates local jobs,” he says. SPU is also interested in using the Trash Track data to increase efficiency. “Shifting traffic patterns or routes may allow us to save on fuel and lessen our carbon footprint,” Slav says.

The tags that Ratti and his team developed are quite sophisticated and have the potential for much broader applications. Existing tracking devices would not have worked. GPS requires a direct line-of-sight between tag and satellite, and radio-frequency identification, or RFID, tags need scanners, like the theft alarms used in stores, in order to be located. So they developed a tag that uses one of the most ubiquitous systems in the world: cell-phone networks. The small, energy efficient tags detect differences in signal strength from cell-phone towers in order to triangulate a location and transmit it in real time.

Biderman speculates on the implications of the Trash Track project saying, “The supply chain has gone through a lot of advances and it has become very efficient and streamlined over the past half a century, whereas the removal chain has not had the same intense intervention of technology. With this project we have the opportunity of really stepping up our ability to gauge the system’s functionality in real time.”

Furthermore, Biderman predicts that these tracking devices, which could track an object anywhere in the world, will ultimately impact the supply chain as well. “If you know where the goods are, you can change where the distribution centers need to be. And if every individual knew what they needed and where it was, you could expect a more dynamic distribution of goods.”

Still, as Biderman points out, the most important facet of this project could be its potential to influence behavior. “When you bring in the citizens as intelligent actors—giving them as much information as possible to make better decisions—then they can start participating in the maintenance of this large-scale urban infrastructure.”

This idea of using information to tweak human behavior and address consumption problems is attracting attention from other sectors as well. Google, for example, is developing a new software, called PowerMeter, that it hopes will prompt people to make better decisions about energy use. Still in testing, this program would show how electricity is being used around a home in nearly real time. Just as with Trash Track, the hope is that once people are exposed to this kind of information they will be motivated to save energy (and therefore money) whenever possible and to take stress off the system. Google also has plans to partner with utility companies and appliance manufacturers, addressing this consumption problem through the system as well as by targeting consumers.

Although human behavior is extremely difficult to predict, there is growing scientific interest in using information to influence how we act. “In this kind of closing of a feedback loop, I think there’s an essential opportunity to increase awareness,” Biderman says.

Originally published August 6, 2009

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