In the United States, tracking trash can also reveal whether recycling benefits the climate. Recycling is supposed to recover energy-intensive materials and thrust them back into the production chain. But early returns from Seattle, Offenhuber said, show that telephones and printer cartridges get shipped across the country -- to Chicago, Miami and New York.
"Because the recycling process itself generates, of course, an environmental burden, this burden is also depending on the transportation distance," he said. "So if you have an object that yields very little energy in the recycling process, and you have to carry it through the whole country, then you have probably a higher environmental burden than gain."
Will Trash Track draw commercial interest? The tracking devices, roughly the size of a pager, were built by Qualcomm, a major wireless communications firm. Those devices were tracked by Sprint, whose networks of towers triangulate individual pieces of trash.
Waste Management, which provides trash and recycling hauling for about half of Seattle, also participated. A spokeswoman for the company said it has no future plans to use the devices, however.
The follow-it-yourself tracker
Sprint spokesman John Taylor said, "It's not something that Sprint is prepared to market right now," but that if someone proposed a Trash Track-like program, the company might consider it. Sprint currently collects phones for recycling, but it has no way of tracking where the phones go once its partner, UPS, takes them.
That doesn't upset Ratti, who thinks of his research projects as enlightening the public.
"Usually we consider them successful not only if they get published in top scientific journals, like Nature or Science, but also if they go to the MoMA," he said, referring to New York's Museum of Modern Art. "We think that it's important, the vision, and the vision for a possible future is what usually we got into the museum."
But according to Offenhuber, telecom companies are watching Trash Track to see if it can be scaled up. By the end of this year, he said, the SENSEable City Lab wants to deploy thousands more trackers, and it wants to focus on e-waste.
That will help the companies develop a tracker that's cheaper and easier to use. Ultimately, the device may even come in a tracking "kit" that lets someone attach it to an item, then log on to a Web site that tells its whereabouts.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500