Seattle Goes Scientific With Trash Tracking Technology

Researchers affix electronic tags to 3,000 trash items to assess Seattle's waste removal system.

by / September 14, 2009

We've all witnessed free-flying trash on city streets or wondered what happens to our trash once it leaves our garbage bins. Now citizens in Seattle won't have to ponder. The city, in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) SENSEable City Lab, is on a quest to assess the city's waste removal system by affixing electronic tags to 3,000 items to see where they end up.

The electronic tags utilize cell phone technology, which will allow MIT researchers to conduct real-time tracking of articles, like boxes, Styrofoam, bottles and metal scrap. So far, researchers have recruited hundreds of citizen volunteers -- each contributing 10-15 household items -- to participate in the study. However, interested volunteers can bring items to the Seattle Central Library to be tagged.

Observation and Analysis

The city produces nearly 800,000 tons of waste annually, nearly half of which ends up in landfills. In January 2005, the city enacted an ordinance prohibiting the disposal of certain recyclables in commercial, residential and self-haul garbage. This move was aimed at educating the public on proper recycling practices and keeping garbage costs low, while saving businesses and residents $2 million annually, according the utility.
Very soon, however, Seattle will be able to determine how effective its current waste management system is by tracking these items and analyzing the results from the experiment.


Video: See the eletronic tag technology that tracks Seattle's garbage.

How It Works

Tags about the size of a matchbox are attached to various-sized items. Each tag on an item is registered along with its name, specifications and the location of its disposal, according to the lab's Web site.

Tracking the items is simple. Because the tags embedded on the items communicate via cell phone towers, they transmit a signal to a cell-phone provider each time they come within range of a tower. The data from the cell-phone provider is then sent to a server, where researchers analyze the data and provide real-time visualizations for the public to see, according the lab.

Subsequent Steps

Data from the study will be used to determine if the current waste removal system is efficient. Additionally research data might be beneficial in urban planning.

The public will be able to view results from the study beginning Sept. 18 online or at the Seattle Central Library.
Residents who want to learn more about recycling can use Ask Evelyn, an online tutorial assistant, or play the interactive Where Does it Go? recycling game on the city's Web site.


Karen Stewartson

Karen Stewartson served as the managing editor of Government Technology for many years. She also contributed to Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.