Tracking Trash to Promote Responsible Recycling

September 15, 2009 06:00 PM
by Anita Gutierrez-Folch
An experiment that tracks the progress of garbage through the trash stream aims to get people thinking about where their trash ends up—and how they can reduce their impact.

Where Does Your Garbage Go?

In attempt to discover the true fate of the trash items we dispose of every day, a team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) launched the SENSEable City Lab TrashTrack project. The researchers are “tagging about 3,000 pieces of Seattle trash to get people thinking about what they throw away and where it ends up,” Phuong Le reports for the Associated Press.

According to project leader Assaf Biderman, this experiment “will allow researchers to study in detail how efficiently, or inefficiently, the waste removal system works.” Biderman hopes the project will also help to raise people’s consciousness about the often long and complicated process that occurs after sending an item down the trash chute. “Seeing where your trash goes allows you to change your behavior,” he told the AP.

Hundreds of volunteers in Seattle are opening their homes and their trashcans for researchers who will attach battery-operated devices to 10 or 15 items of trash in each household, and track their progress after their owners dispose of them, AP reports. The tracking devices send information to a computer system at MIT, allowing researchers to “monitor the trash in real-time as it moves through the waste stream to its final destination,” Le writes.

Although Seattle allegedly recycles approximately 50 percent of its overall waste, not everything that is classified as recycling material actually fits the bill. According to Le, Peter Keller, general manager for Allied Waste, said that “about four percent of the recycling they pick up from Seattle and surrounding cities can't be recycled. This includes everything from bowling balls and kitchen knives to half-filled jars of peanut butter and engine parts.”

Starting Sept. 19, Seattle’s Central Library will host an exhibit displaying the patterns of trash migration discovered by MIT researchers “using a combination of computer-generated displays and photography,” AmericanTowns explains. The exhibit will allow viewers to understand the notion of the trash stream as a reality, and will inform them about the positive effects of responsible recycling.

Background: Individual efforts to reduce environmental impact

In November 2006, eco-friendly blogger Colin Beavan, also known as the “No Impact Man,” began the “No Impact Experiment” with his wife Michelle and his daughter Isabella, a one-year experiment in which they “attempt[ed] to live without making any net impact on the environment,” his blog explains. For an entire year, the family explored a variety of different lifestyles, “from making a limited number of concessions to the environment to becoming eco-extremists,” searching for the perfect balance between comfort and eco-friendliness. Beavan’s experiment was immortalized in a book and a documentary film, both launched in 2009.

In a September interview with New York Magazine, Beavan declared that his family has maintained many of the eco-friendly concessions they engaged in during the project. “We have [a] little refrigerator that we just keep cool enough to stop the milk from souring in three days,” he noted. “We continue to ride our bikes everywhere and buy our food at the farmers market. We've gone back to taking elevators, but, that said, we did discover that taking the stairs is usually faster.”

Similarly, in September 2008, Los Angeles cameraman David Chameides attempted to measure his trash footprint by not throwing anything away for an entire year. “Sustainable Dave” stored all of his accumulated waste in the basement of his home, a measure that has motivated him to cut back on his waste production.

Related Topic: The impact of electronic waste

The switch from analog to digital television that took place in the United States earlier this year meant that a lot of old cathode-ray tube (CRT) display televisions became obsolete. These television sets probably went to the landfill, as people replaced them with new digital TVs—usually flat-panel LCD and plasma screens. Although TVs and other electronic garbage make up only a tiny 2 percent of the total amount of American garbage, the lead content in CRTs makes it particularly important that they get disposed of properly.

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