The New York Times reports that various research institutions have begun tagging bits of garbage (light bulbs, cans, broken glass, etc.) and tracing them along their processing journey to either landfills or recycling centers. Both the Massachusettes Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Architectural League of New York are following thousands of pieces of rubbishover the next few months, displaying their findings online and in exhibitions this weekend. So far, he crew of volunteers have tagged over 300 items from the Seattle region and 50 items in New York City so far, finding that some pieces of trash journey as few as 18 miles while others are still in transit after crossing state lines.

The Times quotes MIT lab director Carlo Ratti, saying the purpose of the research is to discover the real impact of our lifestyles--Americans tend to forget about our garbage once the lid closes on the dumpster. Perhaps, Ratti suggests, seeing the long, expensive journey of our actual garbage will make us reconsider our choices regarding purchases and disposal. Ratti specifically mentions plastic water bottles, saying that people may choose to refill from the tap if they know their Dassani bottles are ending up in landfills right near their homes.

The MIT team is using battery powered tags to trace the individual pieces of trash through the complex network of waste removal--each city or municipality in the country handles this transport differently--because the journey could take anywhere from hours to weeks, depending on the number of independent contractors, water treatment facilities, or landfill distribution centers the trash visits. Researchers have already discovered that different metals or materials draw varied rates for disposal in different areas of the country. This means that the bean can you try to recycle in one place might actually end up in a landfill because the overall cost of disposal might be cheaper than the recycling fees in that area.

Waste Management Inc., a nationwide company operating landfills and recycling centers, is helping to underwrite the research, paying $300,000 toward the data. Spokeswoman Lynn Brown hopes to reveal inefficiencies in our current methods of handling waste. For example, Brown said her company operates 24,000 garbage trucks but hopes to identify overlaps and find more efficient routes with greater emphasis on recycling.

Ultimately, the researchers are hoping consumers will focus more on reducing when they discover that even their painstakingly sorted recycling bins might end up in landfills, too. The experiment, which will show in great detail both the journey trash takes and also the time and energy required to move it along, will make it harder than ever before to put our waste out of mind once it's out of sight.

Researchers tracing trash
New tags follow bits of garbage or recycling from home to final resting place.