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Trash talk: researchers rely on technology to track the waste removal chain

11/02/09 | John R. Johnson | email

As RFID becomes more ubiquitous, the supply chain gets closer and closer to total end-to-end visibility, a nirvana for retailers. So if industry has such a good view of products as they move from the point of manufacturer in Asia to store shelves in the U.S., why is there little or no visibility in the waste removal chain?

When trash is discarded by homeowners or businesses, there is no way of tracking where the trash is hauled away to. Researchers at MIT are in the midst of trials in several cities to get a better picture of what happens to trash once it lands in a dumpster. While the study initially relies on cellular technology-based tags instead of RFID, the technology could play a role in monitoring trash hauling in the future. Already, RFID is used to monitor recycling efforts in Las Vegas and other major cities.

Researchers at MIT’s SENSEable City Lab are studying data from a pilot performed in Seattle, where 3,000 tags were attached to a wide variety of trash items, and then tracked to their final resting place – be it a recycling center, a trash disintegrator, or a barge headed overseas. Dubbed Trash Track, researchers hope the pilot provides a glimpse into the path trash takes once it is discarded.

The project aims to get people thinking about what they throw away and how it impacts the environment. It was just one of several projects presented at the MIT Auto ID & Sensing Expo held last week, featuring RFID and other technologies. One use case called CarTel uses RFID and other sensors in automobiles to track congestion, plan more efficient driving routes, and to record potholes in Boston.

“Our aim with Trash Track is to reveal the disposal process of our everyday objects,” says Carlo Ratti, director of the SENSEable City Lab. “The project could be considered the urban equivalent of nuclear medicine —where a tracer is injected and followed through the human body to reveal how a system functions.”

The trash project is funded by a $300,000 grant from Waste Management, which hopes to use the technology to increase trash hauling efficiencies, cut down on waste, and put more trash to productive use. Aside from the Seattle project, 50 tags were tracked through the waste stream in New York City, and a similar amount in London.

“Waste is a resource and this study presented an opportunity to learn how we can better maximize its use and how can we improve the logistics around our business,” says Lynn C. Brown, vice president of corporate communications at Waste Management. “This was an experiment to use technology to see the movement of our trucks, containers and even how even waste itself is moved. It’s something that has not been studied before. We hope to create some awareness about how we dispose of our own personal waste.”

In July, the MIT Trash Track team began a deployment of 3,000 smart tags on waste objects in Seattle. Working with Waste Management, they are monitoring the path of the trash in real-time using the tags, which report location data to a central server at MIT, where it is processed and visualized into dynamic maps showing a slice of the city’s waste stream.

"Our tags are similar to a small cell phone, but have no keyboard or screen,” says Kristian Kloeckl, one of the project's leaders. “To maximize battery life, we use a fine-grain motion sensor within the tags, which currently last for up to two months on a single charge.”

Among the objects tracked in Seattle are a Starbucks coffee cup, a plastic yogurt container, an old computer, and a fluorescent light bulb. The movement traces of such objects will be shown together with footage of waste disposal and recycling facilities, filmed by video artist Armin Linke. Ratti says that the next step for the program will likely be to affix tags to electronics in order to obtain a better understanding of the e-waste chain, which is one of the largest problems of the disposal supply chain. Often times, electronic products are disposed of inappropriately, damaging the environment.

With the Trash Track project, the SENSEable City Laboratory seeks to couple high-tech, rapidly evolving technology with an everyday human activity -- trash disposal. The project builds on some of the lab's previous projects - including Real Time Rome and the New York Talk Exchange – that explore the ways in which the increasing deployment of sensors and mobile technologies are transforming how urban environments are understood.

“We are hoping that the study will show us some trends and teach us something about the logistics of the waste chain that we can apply everywhere,” says Brown.

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