The New York Times has an article on a baby step towards the "internet of things" (itself one component of a closed loop manufacturing system that we need to develop to kick our resource extraction habit) - They Don't Talk Trash, They Track It.
"Smart" phones offer the intelligence of a computer, with the convenience of a phone. "Smart" meters let homeowners choose between using cheap and expensive electricity.
A 5-year-old group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has spent the last year attaching thousands of tracking devices to pieces of garbage in Seattle and New York City. The devices send out pulses to signal where they are.
The signals go to MIT's SENSEable City Lab for analysis. Last year, they also went to art exhibits in both cities, where live maps revealed the many paths garbage takes.
For example, a plastic soap bottle tossed in a Manhattan recycling bin took several twists and turns around the city before crossing the river to Kearny, N.J.
Carlo Ratti, who directs the City Lab, said each city he's lived in -- Turin, Italy; Paris; Cambridge, England; Boston -- has suffered from congestion, pollution and inefficiency problems.
He believes new technologies, like iPhones, social networking and wireless communication, can inform city dwellers and make cities "smarter." "The only way we can actually solve some of the big problems, like climate change, is if we really coordinate and act together," Ratti said. "What, for the first time, is really bringing us together is the power of networks in general and the Internet." ...
The aim of project "Trash Track": to study where recyclables go. Dietmar Offenhuber, a doctoral student in the lab, said there's plenty of research on how things are made, but little is known about how they degrade and finally disappear. Among the questions here -- especially for cities paying millions for recycling programs -- are how much greenhouse gas is created and how much energy is wasted in the process. Another might be whether recycling really happens.
"Even the people working in waste removal don't really have a clear knowledge or picture of where the stuff goes," he said.
That's partly because trash goes through so many handoffs en route to its final destination, Offenhuber said. Trash companies follow their own haul, for example. But once they separate the aluminum and sell it to a collector, their records end. No single database tracks a soda can through its cycle. ...
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.