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Trash tracked to show its consequences

The coffee cup in the middle of this trash bin in Seattle, Wash., was the first piece of trash tracked by MIT.
The coffee cup in the middle of this trash bin in Seattle, Wash., was the first piece of trash tracked by MIT.Musstanser Tinauli At Senseable City Lab / Senseable City Lab
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One of the great mysteries of urban life — just where does all that trash go — is being revealed by a team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They'll be electronically tracking thousands of pieces of trash in Seattle and New York in an effort to remind consumers that their actions have impacts.

"Trash is one of today’s most pressing issues — both directly and as a reflection of our attitudes and behaviors," Carlo Ratti, head of the MIT Senseable City Lab, said in a statement to mark the formal launch Wednesday. "Our project aims to reveal the disposal process of our everyday objects, as well as to highlight potential inefficiencies in today’s recycling and sanitation systems."

The project, dubbed "Trash Track," has enlisted volunteers willing to have their trash tagged with wireless location markers.

"The project could be considered the urban equivalent of nuclear medicine —when a tracer is injected and followed through the human body," Ratti said.

The researchers plan to eventually show real-time movements online as trash is either recycled or sent to landfills.

"The study of what we could call the ‘removal chain’ is becoming as important as that of the supply chain," said researcher Assaf Biderman. "Trash Track aims to make the removal chain more transparent. We hope that the project will promote behavioral change and encourage people to make more sustainable decisions about what they consume and how it affects the world around them."

The program was inspired by an initiative to increase the recycling rate in New York City from 30 percent today to 100 percent by 2030.

"We hope that Trash Track will also point the way to a possible urban future: that of a system where, thanks to the pervasive usage of smart tags, 100 percent recycling could become a reality,” said researcher Musstanser Tinauli.