GSM tracking of trash to understand the “removal-chain” in urban areas.


Everyday objects at some point in their life cycle are declared of no more use by their owners and cross the fine line between being a proudly owned utility item and a trash object. Imagine a future where immense amounts of trash didn’t pile up on the peripheries of our cities: a future where we understand the ‘removal-chain’ as we do the ‘supply-chain’, and where we can use this knowledge to not only build more efficient and sustainable infrastructures but to promote behavioral change. In this future city, the invisible infrastructures of trash removal will become visible and the final journey of our trash will no longer be “out of sight, out of mind”.


Apparently a trivial task, throwing away trash becomes quite distinct when trying to follow its journey object by object. Inserting the Trash Track tags into the waste removal chain requires attention to a number of critical aspects:

1) Achieving a balance in the different types of objects to be tagged and disposed of in terms of component materials, type of technology, object size and product functionality
2) Attaching the tags to waste objects involves resolving how to adhere the tags and how to protect them from physical impact and water
3) Registering each unique tag number with an object’s name, specifications, context and location of disposal
4) Disposing the tagged objects so as to achieve an even distribution related to context and modality of disposal


Trash Track visualizes individual traces of trash objects. Elaborated by the SENSEable City Lab and inspired by the NYC Green Initiative, TrashTrack focuses on how pervasive technologies can expose the challenges of waste management and sustainability.


TrashTrack uses hundreds of small, smart, location aware tags: a first step towards the deployment of smart-dust – networks of tiny locatable and addressable microeletromechanical systems. These tags are attached to different types of trash so that these items can be followed through the city’s waste management system, revealing the final journey of our everyday objects in a series of real time visualizations.

The trash tag periodically measures its location and reports that data to the server via the cellular network. Future generations of devices will work seamlessly across CDMA/GSM/UMTS networks, a feature that will allow tracking items across international borders. Long enough battery lifetime is ensured through the use of duty cycling (only reporting a position every few hours) and hibernation capability (automatically turning itself off if no movement is registered).

While a large part of tagged waste objects were deployed by SENSEable City Lab members during a six day period in Seattle, several volunteers in Seattle were involved in the project in two ways: one group had their daily trash tagged and subsequently tracked, while on another occasion, a Trash Track tagging event was organized at the Seattle Public Library involving the general public. In the initial project phase 500 tags were deployed. In a second phase of the project, this number will be increased to several thousand tags involving additional cities.


The project is an initial investigation into understanding the ‘removal-chain’ in urban areas and it represents a type of change that is taking place in cities: a bottom-up approach to managing resources and promoting behavioral change through pervasive technologies. TrashTrack builds on previous work of the SENSEable City Lab in its exploration of how the increasing deployment of sensors and mobile technologies radically transform how we understand and describe cities.

The first tracking results served as a base for several publications as well as a number of exhibitions aiming at raising awareness for the phenomenon. Details about the papers as well as the exhibitions can be found on the project’s website.



Senseable Trash (Seattle, Washington)

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Senseable Trash (Seattle, Washington) 47.606210, -122.332071

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