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Will Talking Trash Really Address the Root Waste Issues?

Mary Catherine O'Connor | Thursday July 16th, 2009 | 2 Comments

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People don’t really think that when they toss an empty cup–or an old ink cartridge, or whatever–into a trash can, that the item just, poof, disappears. Right? I mean, no one really thinks that. Regardless of whether they do, many people act as if that’s the case. Out of site, out of mind.
And so in an effort to give a face and a story to some of the trash that’s tossed in test sites in London, New York City and Seattle, a group of MIT researchers plan on using crews of volunteers to help them toss a few thousand wireless tracking devices out along with the trash. Then, they’ll use cellular networks and a cool GUI to track the whereabouts of the garbage for the next few months, giving an end-of-life story to the discarded goods and – hopefully – telling the tale of what happens to stuff after it’s thrown away. They say doing so will make everyone think twice before they eighty-six stuff rather than recycling it or disposing of it in a proper manner.


In reality, the participants of this project are likely going to be the kind of folks who already recycle their bottles and cans. They know that electronic waste is supposed to be given to an accredited collector, and shipped to a licensed recycler – not stuffed in a cargo container and shipped to India where poor residents will crack it open and try to mine the copper and gold from its innards. But the project is designed to enlighten those who don’t think about the ramifications of disposing stuff without using the proper channels – or for the people that have never bothered to find out what those channels are.
“We want to portray a scenario where everything is trackable,” explains the MIT project lead Musstanser Tinauli. “And we are working with end-of-life experts who will be calculating the energy consumed in transporting the trash.”
Everything that is going to have one of MIT’s location tags will, in fact, be trackable, through cell tower triangulation, for as long as the battery that powers the tag lasts – which should be a handful of months. (And as long as the trash is within range of a GSM cellular network.) After that, well, this high-end location tracker, and its onboard battery and all of its parts, will also become trash. (Unless MIT is able to somehow recollect it, which Tinauli says is very unlikely.) Effectively, these location tags are being sacrificed into the landfills or the incineration heaps or wherever else its host trash will land. They’re being sacrificed in the interest of a project that is designed to educate the general public about where stuff goes to die.
Well, they say you’ve got to spend money to make money. Maybe we have to make trash to save trash? Plus, in the grand scheme of our wastefulness, the waste that these tags will represent is a drop in the bucket.
Still, the nagging feeling that this project is over-engineered continues to bother me. Is this really the easiest and lowest-impact means to the end?
Our massive failure, as a society, to reap the value out of the stuff we use – once we’re done using it – is an infrastructure problem. People are lazy. If it’s not easy to properly recycle something, they will throw it in the trash. For that to change, throwing it in the trash has to be come the less attractive option. Or, at the very least, disposing of it properly needs to be as easy as disposing of it improperly. Telling the trash’s life story, I’m afraid, isn’t going to change enough hearts and minds to make a big difference.
To really change the way we deal with our trash, the two ends of the supply chain need to meet up and make a circle. We don’t need to stick expensive, battery-powered wireless devices on our trash to know where it goes. We need better access to getting it where its value can be mined – safely and cleanly. We need manufacturers who understand the concept of producer responsibility, and who grasp the ways that reclaiming the materials that comprise the goods they make can ultimately lower their costs and solve a lot of their sourcing dilemmas.
Would love for you to chime in with a comment about the MIT SENSEable City plan.


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  • http://www.globalwarmingisreal.com/blog Tom

    I agree with you, even though the bits of this project that will be lost into the landfill are miniscule, they will be little bits of toxic battery and electronic components and really hardly worth it (or sending the right message). As you say, we know where are trash goes. Do we really need this? I don’t think so.

  • Wendy

    I live in Melbourne Australia where we have been in drought for 13 years. Our State government is going to build a desalination plant. As I wanted to get a water tank, I really needed to get rid of an old domestic heating oil tank in my backyard. I had wanted to get rid of it for years, but recyclers wouldn’t take it because they only take completely empty tanks. We had given away most of the oil, but there was still a residue in the bottom of the tank.
    I spent several days researching the internet, phoning the council, the Environment Protection Authority, recyclers and no one could help me. Eventually, I was told to phone the Council tip. They said that I couldn’t take it there, but they knew a recycler who could remove it for me if I paid.
    Of course I was only too happy to pay.
    The young man arrived alone with his truck. I told him to let me know if he needed help. Next thing I went outside and he had made a big hole in the tank and drained all the heating oil onto my garden. Then he had dragged the tank, still leaking oil to his truck and left.
    Now I had a worse problem.I phoned all the authorities again and was told to wrap up some soil each week and put it out in the garbage. I phoned a business which removes toxic soil from where Service Stations’ petrol bowsers used to be. They wanted $400 to remove the contaminated soil. Nothing has grown there since. Why do we pay people to protect the environment if they haven’t enough knowledge to advise us correctly?