M.I.T. e-waste project follows your old electronics into the great beyond

As part of it’s Talk to Me: Design and the Communication Between People and Objects exhibition, MoMA recently put M.I.T.’s Senseable City Lab project, BackTalk, on display. To raise awareness about what happens with our discarded cellphones, printers and computers when we upgrade, BackTalk follows obsolete electronic devices—and their individual parts—by fitting them with tracking devices or software. BackTalk then documents their journeys to reuse in other countries, or to recycling facilities in the United States. Interestingly, the project raises more doubt over the process of recycling e-waste than reusing it:

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.”

-Lana Polansky