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MIT's 'backtalk' project tracks discarded electronics

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July 21, 2011

MIT's backtalk project aims at tracing the journeys of discarded electronics by applying l...

MIT's backtalk project aims at tracing the journeys of discarded electronics by applying location trackers to a number of products

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Have you ever wondered what happens to obsolete electronics once they are discarded? How far do they travel and what are the "second lives" of donated computers? MIT's backtalk project aims to answer those questions simply by tracing discarded devices with location trackers applied to a number of e-waste items. The tracking data will be available to the public in the form of real-time visualizations, exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art in New York from July 24.

Rapid changes in technology combined with the ever-quickening pace of the introduction of new products to the market, makes e-waste a critical problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that in 2009 there were 2.37 million tons (2.15 million tonnes) of electronic products ready for end-of-life management in the USA, according to a report published this May. However, only around 25 percent of those products were properly recycled.

Sometimes e-waste must travel long distances to the proper recycling sites. For example, there are only 13 facilities in the world, all in Asia, certified to recycle cathode ray tubes that were utilized in old TVs, MIT researchers report.

To track the journeys made by e-waste, MIT's Senseable City Lab has developed two types of tracking techniques. Working with several NGOs who ship used, donated computers from the US to emerging countries, the backtalk team programmed a number of refurbished laptops, enabling them to automatically detect their location and capture images and videos via built-in webcams. The collected data is sent to MIT labs in real-time, giving a glimpse into donated computers' new lives. New owners were fully informed of what these computers would be doing, MIT explains. Additionally, each laptop has a sticker explaining the project in the local language.

The second part of the backtalk project is focused on the e-waste problem within the US. A number of volunteers in Seattle, Washington, agreed to apply GPS-enabled location trackers to their electronics, that were about to be dicarded. Researchers were thus able to map the movement of batteries, cell phones, printer cartridges and other electronics. Some of those products crossed the entire country on their way to recycling facilities. "The project raised some important questions, including whether the environmental damage from transportation emissions outweigh the benefits of recycling," MIT concludes.

Working on the backtalk project, the Senseable City Lab collaborated with Qualcomm and LG to develop the tracking technology, and partnered with such NGOs as World Computer Exchange, the Peace Corps and World Teach.

The following video is a presentation on the backtalk project:

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