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09.30.09

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There Is No Away

Following the twisted migration of our stuff

By Juliane Poirier


One of my favorite phrases, passed along by North Coast horticulturalist Ernie Wasson, sums up any living organism's basic options: adapt, migrate or die. Migration can be a naturally life-sustaining option, even a necessity for birds, humans and other living things. But the migration of garbage is just the opposite; it's an unnatural and energy-intensive process referred to as "the removal chain." And it's twisted. Of course, we don't know much about it because it takes place in a fantasy realm called "away," as in "thrown away." Our urban waste-management systems are more or less based on this collective fantasy in which participants tacitly agree that once the bins are emptied by the collection trucks, our refuse no longer exists. But some fantasy-crushing researchers in a project called Trash Track are saying there is no away. To prove it, they're virtually trotting after the garbage truck and asking, "Why do we know so much about the supply chain and so little about the removal chain?" Trash Track is an artistic, scientific, architectural and technological investigation of the removal chain. It's an experimental brainchild of creative researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who, with funding from Waste Management of New York, are studying the migration of garbage in three major cities with the intent of changing the way we perceive and manage refuse. In London, New York and Seattle this summer, volunteers helped tag 3,000 items of trash per city with transmission devices similar to little cell phones without keyboards or screens. The device is small enough to fit in your palm, and its components fall well below U.S. and European toxin thresholds in order to be safe in any waste stream.Beginning in mid-July, the locations of tagged items were transmitted to a central server at MIT and mapped in real time as they traveled through the waste streams of these cities. This month, the Trash Track team unveiled two public exhibits on view until Nov. 7—one at the Seattle Public Library and the other at the Architectural League in New York City. My favorite among the reports is a beautifully depicted map and graphics poster with data about a Starbucks cup thrown away somewhere in Seattle: "Brown coffee cup, currently located on Interstate 5, Seattle, WA 98108; 7 days, 8 hours and 42 minutes en route."Similar to the dynamic maps on some airline flights that show you where the plane is by means of a moving red line that makes its way across a map, the Trash Track graphics depict the travels of the coffee cup by marking the route it traveled from the time it was tossed in the garbage can at a Seattle Starbucks to when it reached the interstate seven days later. But the line of travel includes blobs where the cup paused on its journey—the larger the blob, the longer the pause. That one coffee cup did not go directly anywhere, but took an erratic route that was not completed when the map was made. I wonder if it's still traveling. What is obvious from a look at the movement patterns on the MIT maps is that the garbage odyssey does not follow biological patterns; it is not efficient. A plastic soap container in New York traveled three and a half days for a distance of 18 miles when it was mapped. An aluminum can in Seattle traveled just over two miles to a recycling collection point.

When the experiment is over, it would be a snap for MIT folks to measure the greenhouse gas emissions made by the traveling trash, but that's not the point. What the Trash Track team is really trying to do is show the urban majority what happens to our stuff after it leaves the curb. Their hope is that the maps of garbage migration will make us change our behavior—perhaps take a real, reusable mug with us to carry our coffee. That would be a start, a small act to demonstrate that the maps of garbage migration brought expulsion from the fantasy land called "away."


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