Thursday, 16 July 2009

Keeping tags on rubbish

Thousands of pieces of household rubbish are to be tracked using sophisticated mobile tags (BBC News and MIT press release)

Three thousand smart tags are going to be attached to things being thrown away. OK, so the researchers say that the resource use and manufacturing of the tags is justified by the information that will be gathered, but how does adding a tag this size (we're not taking a James Bond micro-gadget here) not contaminate the recycling stream of whatever it's attached to? One of the items mentioned is garden waste - I don't think they will compost, somehow. And the tag is made of electronic components, which are hard enough to reprocess thanks to all the toxic metals and so on.
"We hope that Trash Track will also point the way to a possible urban future: that of a system where, thanks to the pervasive usage of smart tags, 100 percent recycling could become a reality," says research assistant, Musstanser Tinauli.
Hang on - I can accept that for one research project it could be a good idea to track a load of rubbish. Pervasive (i.e. much wider) use of smart tags does not, to me, seem to be the way to go. Tags tell you where your stuff has been (if you care) when it is/after it has been there. What needs to happen is that the information from the research project needs to be used to identify where the biggest improvements to recycling flows can be made, so that consumers who do throw things away don't have to worry about it - as long as they put them in the appropriate bin, they are dealt with properly. There's no need to tag everything!

(Of course this research should also just be a part of the bigger picture, where efforts are also put into reduction and re-use so that there is less to recycle anyway, rather than reinforcing the idea of "I recycled it, so that's OK" regardless of whether or not the item was actually necessary in the first place, or still had useful life left in it.)

Concerns aside, I'll be interested to see where the tags end up, at what point they get removed (will they be crushed and melted down if attached to a glass bottle? Will they get recycled themselves if they are on other electronic equipment? What happens when an item is split up, e.g. mobile phone into plastic casing, screen and circuitry?), and whether the information gathered matches up with what we think we know from the conventional records of where particular waste streams go. It could shed some light on the old "recycling collected by X council actually goes to landfill" stories we see in the media from time to time. But as ever, the important thing is then what's actually DONE with the information...

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