WHEN LAKE WASHINGTON Girls Middle School eighth grader Naomi True built a solar–powered robot in science class two years ago, she had no idea that it would lead to anything other than a good grade. She and her fellow students fashioned a square body and head out of corrugated plastic and gave it a calculator for a breastplate. They painted its face purple and green and glued on little googly eyes. Her name is Lizzie. And she’s headed for the dump.
Trash Track, a project developed by MIT, was designed to examine resource management and spark behavioral change. Researchers tagged hunks of rubbish in Seattle and New York with cellphone technology, which registers locations on mobile networks as the junk journeys from dumpster to dump. Lake Washington Girls Middle School heard about Trash Track in August—and Lizzie, broken but too cute to toss, was freed from her dusty shelf and plucked for garbage duty.
“I don’t know the reality of where trash goes,” admitted school head Patricia Hearn, “which is a really good example of why this is necessary. I haven’t put a lot of thought into what happens after throwing it away.”
Seattleites toss 760,000 tons of trash per year; that’s 2,100 tons per day. Only about half is recycled, and the remainder is ferried via train to an Oregon landfill. Tim Croll, spokesperson for Seattle Public Utilities, supports the study. “Being able to reassure folks where it’s going will lead to people separating recycling and food waste.”
For now MIT will educate Seattleites about the path of its perishables—like a paper coffee cup, which traveled seven days, eight hours, and 42 minutes from Greenwood to a local recycling facility. Progress can be tracked at senseable.mit.edu/trashtrack.
As for Lizzie the she–bot? MIT will complete her travelogue in a couple of months. “The piece of work I helped make will be going all the way to a landfill,” True mused. “I was glad it wasn’t thrown away for no reason.”