Starting today at the downtown Seattle Public Library, you can watch on monitors where Seattle's trash goes, from your garbage can to wherever it might end up. It's the work of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Share story

Here’s something you might have overlooked when planning how to spend your weekend:

Tracking in real time where Seattle’s trash goes, from your curbside bins to wherever it might end up — a recycling center on the other side of town, or a landfill in Oregon, or perhaps even overseas.

Starting at 11 a.m. today at the downtown Seattle Public Library, you can watch on a large projection screen the work by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

They chose Seattle because of its environmental reputation.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Here, for example, is an aluminum can that was tagged electronically.

It began its journey at 6 p.m. Aug. 31 at a waste container on First Avenue.

It ended its short trip 2 ½ miles south at the Rabanco Recycling Center on Sept. 2, at 8:11 p.m. and 20 seconds.

Tracking how our garbage travels, say the MIT researchers, is kind of like injecting a tracer into our bloodstream and following it through the human body. It helps us understand how the system works.

Lance Albertson, 47, of Woodinville, was one of the people who volunteered for the project.

He is “in transition” jobwise, meaning he’s a programmer getting more training as a programmer as he searches for a job.

Albertson was so enthused about participating that he put a clothes dryer into the back of his 2005 Prius and drove downtown to the library’s underground parking lot.

Volunteers were asked in late August to take their garbage — there was a list of the kinds of garbage the researchers wanted, from glass products to old laptops to clothing items — to the library.

The researchers also went to homes of some residents.

Albertson says researchers taped a tracking device to the back of the dryer, and he later took it to a Woodinville recycler.

He chronicled it all in a blog.

“Your Starbucks cup, your lovingly crafted macaroni necklace, your television set: their time with you eventually comes to an end. Of course, we all know in the back of our minds that all those items go somewhere. But where do they go? And how do they get there?” wrote Albertson.

“Without data about where stuff goes and how it gets there it is difficult to figure out ways to improve the removal system.”

Seattle produces plenty of waste: 790,000 tons in 2008, half of which went to a landfill in Arlington, Ore., with the other half recycled or composted.

So far, 50 people have had their garbage tagged at the library, and researchers have gone to 15 homes. Some people have had one or two items tagged, some 10 to 20 items.

In total, there are 3,000 tracking devices, and tagging is continuing to keep the real-time library exhibit — which lasts until Oct. 11 — with garbage that is current. Another 50 devices were used in a smaller New York City project, and 50 more will be installed next month in London.

Ten years ago, this kind of experiment couldn’t have been conducted. The technology wasn’t readily available.

The devices cost about $100 each to make. Eventually, they could cost as little as $1 each. They’re essentially miniaturized, stripped-down cellphones embedded in foam or coated against the elements.

The funding for devices came from a $300,000 grant from Waste Management, the multibillion-dollar company that picks up much of the country’s garbage. It has the contract for south and northwest Seattle.

Lynn Brown, spokeswoman for Waste Management, says the firm runs 21,000 collection trucks that collect garbage from 20 million customers.

“In the larger scale of things, Waste Management is more of a logistics company than anything else,” she says.

So, says Brown, the company funded the devices, hoping the research would help those 21,000 trucks move around more efficiently.

Another person who volunteered garbage for the project was Dawn DeGroot, a Wallingford resident who brought old UGG slippers that were her husband’s.

“They were really cozy. He really loved the sheepskin inside,” said DeGroot. “But the bottoms were totally worn out.”

She said the MIT researchers put the tracking devices into the slippers, and then filled them with foam that hardened. The foam cushioned the devices in their travels. She then took the slippers back home and put them in the family’s garbage can.

DeGroot said just volunteering for the project made her think more about garbage

“Oh, totally, it makes you so aware. We don’t want to destroy this planet,” she says. “Imagine if everything you threw away had a tracker. My slippers have a tracking number. I’m gonna go to the library and look them up.”

The MIT researchers say the garbage project is part of their studies on how electronic sensors and mobile technologies change our lives.

These days, says Assaf Biderman, associate director for the project, “everybody carries a cellphone; we have network connectivity everywhere.”

It says something about how we’ve accepted high-tech into our lives that Seattle residents participating in the project recognized the troubling potential of such cheap tracking devices, but they weren’t particularly bothered.

If an inexpensive device can track in real time an inanimate object, well, it can do the same with a person.

“It’s always a trade-off, isn’t it? I know that I can be tracked through my cellphone, but, dang, cellphones are really useful,” says Lance Albertson, waiting to see where his dryer ended up.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com