technology waste

Where does your rubbish go?

Where does your rubbish end up? The answer to that question is – thankfully – more complex than it used to be. The old answer was that it went to the dump outside the town. Some of it still does, but if your trash is separated, it’s going to end up all over the place. Plastic bottles will be processed and recycled, metals and paper will go somewhere else. Specialist waste such as batteries or broken electronics go on a journey of their own, possibly an international one.

MIT’s Senseable City Lab conducted a project in Seattle that explored these journeys. Local residents brought in their rubbish, and items were tagged with trackers that would ping back information as the waste was processed. Lab director Carlo Ratti told us about it at the Emerging Technologies conference last week, and this is the video he showed:

One of the things that immediately struck me about the journeys the waste took is the variety of length. A tin can is taken out of the city, melted down and reused almost immediately. It only traveled 2.5 miles, and existed as an item of trash for less than 48 hours. Batteries were still on the road after two months. Spray cans traveled the shortest distances, and printer cartridges went the furthest. The trackers would only respond within the United States, but items reported their last known locations from the Mexican and Canadian borders, or from ships leaving Seattle.


  1. Very interesting! I hope none of that stuff ends up in one of our third world countries – we’re already drowning in our own trash. But we could certainly do with importing the care, awareness and management of waste.

  2. We are expected to sort rubbish before disposal in Sweden. Beggars are a help here, they take the bottles and cans and claim the deposits.

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