Tracing the Journey of Disposed Electronics
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.