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February 2011
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CityLink Seattle

Trash Study Findings In

Over 75% of waste reached recycling facilities

In August 2009, a team of researchers from the Senseable City Lab in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning embarked on project to track the journey of 3,000 items of waste as they moved through Seattle’s disposal system. The goal of the project, called Trash Track, was to monitor the patterns and costs of urban disposal and to help create awareness of the impact of trash on the environment.

The findings:

Over 75% of the waste tracked in the study reached recycling facilities, a value that is significantly above the US average. And overall 95% of it reached an EPA-compliant end destination in the vicinity of the Seattle metropolitan area, which speaks to the effectiveness of the municipal waste removal system in Seattle.

To track the trash, the MIT team, together with a group of local volunteers, attached over 3,000 custom-developed smart tags to waste objects discarded by households and schools across the Seattle metropolitan area. The tags’ trajectories were then monitored in real-time on a central server at MIT.

Results also showed how surprisingly far some of the Seattle waste traveled, effectively spreading across the entire country. Electronic and household hazardous waste, for example, which was sent to specialized recycling and reuse facilities in other states, traveled on average more than 1,500 km.

A printer cartridge reported the longest trace with a length of 6,152 km, suggesting that, in some cases, the carbon emissions produced in getting waste to a recycling facility negates the expected benefit of recycling.

Beyond providing a unique insight into the workings of the trash removal system, Trash Track aims to get people thinking about what they throw away.

The Trash Track project is supported by Waste Management, Qualcomm, Sprint, the Architecture League of New York, the City of Seattle and the Seattle Public Library.