MIT’s Trash Tracking Project

Flickr user basmati-authentic help

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are attaching tracking devices to pieces of garbage in Seattle and charting their journey through the global disposal and recycling system. I’ll admit to being a bit jealous. Earlier this year, I too followed my trash, starting in my apartment in San Francisco (which recycles more than any other major city), and continuing through the city dump and beyond. I’d wanted to employ tracking devices but after consulting with everyone from a friend at Wired to device manufacturers in Taiwan, couldn’t find anything sufficiently small and affordable. Indeed, the Times reports that MIT’s plan to use battery-powered tags based on cell phone technology will cost more than $300,000:

Through the project, overseen by M.I.T.’s Senseable City Laboratory, 3,000 common pieces of garbage, mostly from Seattle, are to be tracked through the waste disposal system over the next three months. The researchers will display the routes in real time online and in exhibitions opening at the Architectural League of New York on Thursday and the Seattle Public Library on Saturday.

Interestingly, the $300,000 is coming from Waste Management, the nation’s largest landfill company. When I followed my own trash to Waste Management’s Altamont Landfill, the project had seemed novel the company’s spokesperson. Most of my story focused on the recycling efforts of Waste Management’s competitor, Recology, which handles garbage pickup and recycling in San Francisco (but dumps at Altamont). Could the MIT project be a way for Waste Management to co-opt the idea for its own PR purposes? Probably so. But it’s also just plain cool, and I’m glad they’re doing it.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate