By Jonathan Fildes
Tagging technology to track trash
The ebb and flow of thousands of pieces of household rubbish are to be tracked using sophisticated mobile tags.
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.
“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.”
The Trash Track aims to make that process – termed the “removal chain” – more transparent.
In order to monitor how the pieces of rubbish move around the cities and beyond, the MIT team has developed a small mobile sensor that can be attached to individual pieces of waste.
“It’s like a miniature cell phone with limited functionality,” said Carlo Ratti, another member of the project.
Each tag – encased in a protective resin – continuously broadcasts its location to a central server. The results can then be collected and plotted on a map in real time.
“It’s like putting tracers in your blood and seeing where it moves around your body,” said Mr Biderman.
Because cell phone technology is cheap and – importantly – ubiquitous, the system should be able to track rubbish around the globe.
This could be important when tracking computers and electronic waste, which is often disposed of incorrectly, according to Mr Ratti.
“Some of them are shipped to Africa to pollute,” he said.
The team aims to tag different types of waste from computers and cell phones to bags of garden waste.
The group is currently looking for volunteers to donate their trash.
The results of the US studies will be shown at two exhibitions in Seattle and New York during September.
The team stresses that it has tried to limit the impact of its study and of the technology, and limit the amount of extra waste it contributes to the “removal chain”.
“We are adhering to the highest standards in terms of environmental impact,” said Mr Biderman.
“The impact this could have on waste management and removal… could be significant, so these kinds of experiments could be much more useful than harmful for the environment.”
The MIT team has previously revealed the movements of people around cities, such as Rome and Copenhagen, by analysing mobile phone signals.
They used a similar method to show how crowds moved around Washington during the inauguration of US President Barack Obama.
The tags used to track the rubbish are a departure from these more passive studies of city movements.
Ultimately, the team hopes that the technology can be miniaturised and made cheap enough that the tags could one day be attached to everything.
“Think about a future where thanks to smart tags we will not have waste anymore,” said Mr Ratti. “Everything will be traceable.”
BY Steve Doughty
Council snoopers sifting through rubbish bins to find out if you’re wealthy or poor
Nearly 100 town halls ordered secret searches of their residents’ rubbish bins last year.
The official aim was to find out who was throwing out what to help councils encourage recycling.
But some staff examining the contents of bins also classified residents as well-off or poor.
In one area householders were divided into categories on the basis of their rubbish, ranging from Level One Wealthy Achiever to Level Five Hard Pressed.
The bin trawls, uncovered through Freedom of Information requests, have been criticised as an invasion of privacy and a waste of effort.
One council chief said he strongly objected to the examination of waste unless specific permission is obtained from the householder.
Jeremy Kite, Tory leader of Dartford in Kent, said: ‘I do not believe it is right.’
Neighbouring councils to Dartford were among those who did go ahead with secret searches of bins.
Eleven councils in Kent allowed the bins from more than 2,000 homes to be scrutinised by officials working for the Kent Waste Partnership.
Waste was dumped into a big pile and sorted into 66 different categories, which included ten types of paper and card, 11 types of plastic, five sorts of glass, six kinds of textiles and a miscellaneous category that included disposable nappies, carpet and sanitary waste.
Other surveys were carried out in Scarborough, North Yorkshire, and in the areas covered by Eastbourne, Hastings, Lewes, Rother and Wealden councils in East Sussex.
The officially-endorsed searches of residents’ rubbish follow many previous rows over council waste collections.