Assaf Biderman’s electronic trash-tracking follows waste in real time

Biderman’s team will analyze the trash data to figure out exactly where inefficiencies occur in the waste disposal system. He hopes that when people see where their trash goes, they might create less.

Assaf Biderman: Many people, as soon as they throw something into the garbage, they think it’s gone. So we wanted to bring to light this slightly invisible system of waste removal.

Assaf Biderman is Associate Director of MIT’s SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, which specializes in the interactions between humans and technology in cities. Biderman is helping launch a project called Trash Track, which tracks garbage with the use of cutting-edge electronic tags which tracks garbage with the use of cutting-edge electronic tags.

Assaf Biderman This tag could tell its location wherever it is, whether it’s in the U.S. or overseas, for several months.

In fall of 2009, volunteers in Seattle and New York City will start attaching tags to items they’re about to throw away – thousands of pieces of garbage. Online, people can follow the trash’s journey, in real time.

Assaf Biderman: Think about the impact it might have. What happens if a plastic cup you threw two days ago, you see it sitting on a hill 20 miles from your house, and you know it’s going to be there for a long time, will people think twice next time before using one receptacle rather than another?

Biderman’s team will also analyze the trash data to figure out exactly where inefficiencies occur in the waste disposal system. He hopes that when people see where their trash goes, they might create less.

Assaf Biderman: It’s almost like a bottom up type of process that if the public engages in we’ll be able to not only deal with the trash in a better way from the standpoint of how the system can process trash, but also maybe the production of trash in itself could change.

Assaf Biderman described Trash Track as being part of an ‘internet of things’.

Assaf Biderman When you are on the internet, every computer on the network has an address and can be communicated with. What happens if objects are like that – if your coffee cup can be located in real time?

He explained how the tags work:

Assaf Biderman: These tags will be placed on trash objects by people, and then they’ll throw the trash objects as they would otherwise and we’ll be able to track these objects as they move through the waste removal system in real time.

Biderman said the tags themselves required a lot of research to construct.

Assaf Biderman: Currently, it’s the size of a matchbox a lives for several months Our next version is going to be about a quarter of that size, and will live for a year. We needed to come up with a material solution of how to protect the tag. You need to encase it and make sure it doesn’t emit heat, if the encasing is to be watertight. Then there is the question of communication with the tags, a major research topic is called information design. The question is, how can you communicate complex information about dynamic flows in the environment to people in a way that can call for action, and help people realize something new about their environment?

Our thanks to:
Assaf Biderman is Associate Director of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT. The Lab’s focus is on studying and predicting the changes that cities undergo as interconnected computational elements – things like cell phones or other kinds of digital tracking devices – become ubiquitous. After graduating from MIT, Assaf spent several years at the MIT Media Lab and has been a researcher at the SENSEable City Laboratory since its establishment in 2004. Assaf has authored several papers in Human Computer Interactions (HCI). In addition to his direct involvement in research, Assaf is also in charge of technology transfer and commercialization at the SENSEable City Laboratory.

Beth Lebwohl