Mind & Matter


Tracing the Journey of Disposed Electronics

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The Backtalk project, by MIT's Senseable City Lab.


All of the excitement that surrounds the launch of new commercial products typically ignores a critical downside: the accelerated obsolescence of existing products, which are disposed in large volumes. According to a 2011 report on electronic waste by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2.37 million tons of electronic products were disposed in 2009, only a quarter of which were properly recycled.

Realizing that consumers are more likely to make good decisions when supplied with the right information, researchers at MIT’s Senseable City Lab have developed techniques for tracking and visualizing the disposal and recycling process of electronic products. In a project entitled Backtalk, the researchers traced discarded computers and other electronic devices along their journey to recycling centers around the world. Some of the devices were refurbished and reused in developing markets, and their second lives are also being monitored by the Backtalk project.

Although reports like the EPA’s recent study convey important information, the tangible and visually rich details of MIT’s project promise to deliver the story about the global journeys of e-waste in a concrete, visceral way that will likely influence improvements in product manufacturing and recovery cycles. The Backtalk project is currently on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.



Comments (1 Total)

  • Posted by: Elisa JEd | Time: 9:53 PM Thursday, April 03, 2014

    I can't believe 2.37 million tons of electronic products were thrown away in just one year. If only a quarter were recycled correctly that means 1.77 million tons ended up where they shouldn't have. I am so glad newer and better ways to recycle electronics have come about since then. Elisa Jed | http://www.sunwestmetals.com/?id=commercial

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.