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A Global Pinball Game: Tracking E-Waste - NY Times Green Blog post

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A Global Pinball Game: Tracking E-Waste


By: JOANNA M. FOSTER


July 25, 2011


Our electronic gadgets are such an integral part of our daily routines that they have become extensions of ourselves. Some people are so attached to their smartphones that they even talk and text while showering.


Yet, for all the love we lavish on them, when a faster computer or a sleeker phone enters the market, our intimate companions are promptly discarded.


BackTalk, a project of M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab that is now on display at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, seeks to better understand what becomes of the three million tons of electronic waste disposed of annually in the United States. The display is part of the exhibition “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects,” which opened to the public on Sunday.


BakTalk transforms obsolete electronics into independent reporters sent out into the netherworld of the global e-waste chain to record their afterlife.

There are two common fates for old electronics, recycling or reuse. To track the reuse stream, the team collaborated with World Computer Exchange, World Teach and the Peace Corps, which all send outdated computers to countries the developing world. Forty donated netbooks were equipped with tracking software and labeled with stickers announcing that they recording their whereabouts.


After arriving at their destinations, the computers send out location updates and snapshots of their surroundings every 20 minutes. With this data, the team is able to create a real-time visual narrative of these computers’ second lives in classrooms in Nepal and public libraries in Kenya.


“For the first time, you can actually see where your old laptop ends up and who is benefiting on a day-to-day basis from your donation,” said Assaf Biderman, associate director of the Senseable City Lab.


The second half of the BackTalk exhibit is a visualization of the whimsical wanderings of e-waste across the United States. Placing tracking devices on volunteers’ discarded cellphones, batteries, printer cartridges and so on, the team was able to track the convoluted paths of e-waste from Seattle to recycling plants that in many cases were on the other side of the country.


According to Carlo Ratti, director of the Senseable City Lab, the mapping raised some serious questions about the usefulness and net environmental impact of recycling certain electronics.


“Unlike other sorts of recycling, which have become relatively streamlined, the visualization shows pieces of e-waste bopping back and forth across the country, having one component recycled in the Midwest and another recycled on the West coast, and so on,” Dr. Ratti. said. “There is gross inefficiency here.”


Dr. Biderman describes e-waste as an enormous and pressing challenge.


“It represents both a source of great value and a potential toxic environmental hazard,” he said. “We hope that the exhibit will both raise consumer awareness about what happens when they upgrade, and shed light on inefficiencies in the e-waste disposal chain which desperately need to be addressed.”