Trash Tracking

July 15, 2009

The BBC News site has an article about a trash tracking project at MIT.  The idea is to place small tracking devices on a sample of assorted rubbish, and then track the various pices of trash as they move to their final destination:

It is hoped that making people confront the final journey of their waste will make them reduce what they throw away.

Initially, 3,000 pieces of rubbish, donated by volunteers, will be tagged in New York, Seattle and London.

(If I had known they only needed 3,000 pieces of rubbish, we could have probably offered them one-stop shopping from our basement.)

The project organizers say that a key aim of their work is to make the process by which trash is disposed of more visible:

“Trash is almost an invisible system today,” Assaf Biderman, one of the project leaders at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told BBC News.

“You throw something into the garbage and a lot of us forget about it. It gets buried, it gets burned, it gets shipped overseas.”

This probably is a worthwhile objective.   I have heard people say that there is no point in recycling, because municipalities can’t make money on the recycled material anymore.  This is, clearly, not the right test.  Material should be recycled if the total cost of disposal is less, including the cost of landfills for material that is not recycled, and the external costs of pollution and resource depletion.   The tracking program may also be helpful in highlighting the issue of toxic waste disposal in the Third World.

Some of the project team’s ideas may be a little unrealistic:

Ultimately, the team hopes that the technology can be miniaturised and made cheap enough that the tags could one day be attached to everything.

If every instance of every product is traced, the concept of personal privacy would suffer a serious blow.  Fortunately, regardless of how cheap the tags get, this is unlikely to be an economic proposition for many goods.   But it might be worthwhile to identify, for example, high-tech products that contain considerable amounts of heavy metals and other toxins.

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