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Researchers track 3,000 pieces of Seattle trash

Using an electronic tracking device about the size of a matchbook, MIT researchers are tagging about 3,000 pieces of Seattle trash to get people thinking about what they throw away and where it ends up.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Where does that coffee cup, disposable razor or unwanted television end up once it's tossed to the curb?

Using an electronic tracking device about the size of a matchbook, MIT researchers are tagging about 3,000 pieces of Seattle trash to get people thinking about what they throw away and where it ends up.

"Seeing where your trash goes allows you to change your behavior," said Assaf Biderman, associate director of MIT's SENSEable City lab and a project leader. "Will you refill a cup instead of throwing away a disposable one?"

Researchers are visiting the homes of hundreds of Seattle volunteers to affix electronic tags on about 10 to 15 pieces of their household trash, such as pizza boxes, Styrofoam cups, slippers and scrap metal. The volunteers will dispose of the item as they normally would.

The battery-operated smart tags rely on cell phone technology to send information back to MIT computers, allowing researchers — and the public — to monitor the trash in real-time as it moves through the waste stream to its final destination.

Exhibit to open Sept. 18
The public will be able to follow the trash migration at an exhibit that opens at Seattle's Central Library Sept. 18.

Jennifer Giltrop of Seattle said she's curious to see what happens to the empty wine bottle, a used printer cartridge and a plastic bag that she recently had tagged.

"We know where we purchase our items from, but we're not always as aware of what happens when we throw things away," said Giltrop, 38, who is assistant director of Seattle's main library. "We're aware of recycling, but what's the process?"

Biderman said the project will allow researchers to study in detail how efficiently, or inefficiently, the waste removal system works.

Does recycling end up being recycled rather than in the landfill? Does it take weeks rather than hours or days for trash picked up from one Seattle neighborhood to get to the transfer station?

"We're definitely a throwaway society that sets it and forgets it," said Brett Stav, planning and development specialist with Seattle Public Utilities. "A lot of people forget about what happens to the things that they throw away and they don't really factor in their impact."

In Seattle, about 789,608 tons of waste is discarded each year. About half of that ends up in the landfill, while the rest is recycled, reused or composted.

But about two-thirds of the city's garbage that ends up in the landfill, including food and garden waste, can be recycled, according to the latest figures from 2006.

"We're interested in improving our collection system," Stav said, noting the city collects garbage from 150,000 homes on different routes five days a week.

Trash is taken to two city transfer stations before being loaded onto a train to a landfill in Oregon. The city may find out that some routes take longer than others, Stav said.

City recycles 50 percent of its waste
Biderman said Seattle was chosen because of its reputation for recycling and its advanced waste disposal system.

Seattle now recycles about 50 percent of its overall waste, compared with 38 percent five years ago. The city hopes to recycle 60 percent of its waste by 2012. The national recycling rate is about 32 percent.

Pete Keller, general manager for Allied Waste, said about four percent of the recycling they pick up from Seattle and surrounding cities can't be recycled. This includes everything from bowling balls and kitchen knives to half-filled jars of peanut butter and engine parts, he said.

Once workers sort through the recycling, they sell it to domestic and some foreign markets. Soda cans are made back into aluminum products, and cardboard turned back into boxes, paper and packaging materials, Keller said.