Life of Trash

Nicholas Johnson

Life of Trash is a series of experiments designed to reveal the hidden life of trash and help engage citizens in order to better understand the pervasiveness and impact of waste throughout urban societies.

Does anyone think about trash? Once we place something into the trash can, do we ever think of where the trash goes? What happens to trash after it gets picked up? How long does trash live after it has been collected?

Life of Trash attempts to uncover the world surrounding trash by using a variety of methods including tracking trash after curbside pickup, mapping landfills across the country and investigating how an individual can lead a zero waste lifestyle. Through this series of experiments, Life of Trash hopes to bring about a better understanding of our current waste system, raise greater awareness of the impact of trash in our daily lives and encourage people to take more responsibility for the waste they create.

Research for the Life of Trash required a great deal of communication with the outside world as well as a great deal of reading on what has historically been researched and discovered while studying trash. To understand the context and where I am in the scope of trash research, I read a series of books about waste including Gone Tomorrow, Garbage Land, High Tech Trash, Garbology, Rubbish! and Picking Up. Collectively these books provide an excellent foundation for trash discussion and a better understanding of how waste has existed and changed over the last 100 years. Other readings include numerous news articles and blogs which were either released during the course of my research or were sent to me from people who knew I was investigating waste. That is to say, on an almost daily basis, I was receiving articles on my workspace, through facebook or via email regarding waste from people excited to help in my research. They became my eyes and ears into the world of trash as I became the ITP Trash King. Aside from the books and online articles, there were two 'field trips' which were extremely important to my research. The first trip I organized was to Action Environmental Services. Action is the business who collects all of NYU's waste. I was put in contact with Action via NYU affiliates in the Green Grants department. This trip was to visit their sorting facility and to obtain a first hand understanding of how waste is processed. The visit turn out to be an amazing experience and because of NYU's positive relationship with Action, I encourage faculty and students to visit the facility in the future.

The second trip I organized was to Fresh Kills Park (landfill). This trip was in part organized by Nancy Hechinger who was also very helpful in connecting me to the outside world. The purpose of this trip was two-fold, first to see the once largest landfill in the country soon to be converted into a park, and second, to use aerial photography methods research by the Public Laboratory to attempt an aerial view of the landfill. This trip was also an amazing experience in part by seeing the site, and in part by getting to understand further how the life of a landfill changes over time (50 to 80 years). Members from the Parks Department were extremely helpful in making the trip possible. These two field trips were certainly the most powerful but there were many other meetings, conferences and discussions which aided me in my research. One such meeting was with two women from the IBM Watson, a think tank dedicated to help corporations better handle waste. During the meeting, we each shared our research and what were were each doing in the space which proved to be very enlightening. For my part, I was happy to see that even members from IBM were having difficulty in getting information. It was also helpful for me to see the thought process and approach to research they were conducting. For them, the idea of including citizen scientists into the research process was a new idea. They were delighted to see my approach in trash tracking and we are planning on collaborating more in the further. An important conference that I attend was the Creative Mornings presentation from Ron Gonen. Ron Gonen is the Deputy Commissioner of the New York Department of Sanitation and a professor of entrepreneurship at Columbia. Mr. Gonen is easily known as the king of waste in New York City (perhaps my idol) and has been an integral part of modernizing the city's waste handling processes. The Creative Mornings conference was extremely useful to hear directly from Mr. Gonen as to how the city views waste and the problems they are trying to solve. Though I tried on several occasions to meet and converse with Mr. Gonen privately, we were never able to make it possible.

Beginning with the trash tracking, I built an android application which preforms a set of basic instructions. Once the app is launched, it immediately gets its location coordinates and sends them via SMS to a number I have setup with Twilio. After the app sends its coordinates, it sets a timer which I specified to be fifteen minutes. When the timer is set, the app turns off as many functions on the phone as possible until the timer goes off performing the process all over again. The fifteen minute time was an intentional decision which may not have been the best choice. This decision was to save battery life and let the phone's battery last as long as possible. Ultimately, when the phone was launched into the trash, it was destroyed after 8 hours. Had the timer been set with a shorter interval, I would have received better and more accurate information.

Once the SMS was received at my Twilio number, an HTTP Post request was called sending the body of the text message to a web application I built with node.js. When the web application received the body of the message (aka the coordinates), it sent them into a CartoDB database which was then populated into a map. The map could then be inserted back into my website( for viewing. The real benefit of this whole process is that it could happen in realtime. People could log into the website and in realtime see on a map where my trash was traveling.

Unfortunately, building this process the first time require me to learn several new languages which caused me to design the process for one specific phone. Since the first launch, I have recoded everything to be able to handle multiple phones allowing a mass audience to download the app and begin tracking the phone online. A second piece of technology which I created was a google map which allowed a user to see where all of the landfills are in the country. This map was created with data from the EPA which I then turned into JSON allowing the Google Maps API to access the data and plot everything on the map. One important feature which was added to the map was the focusing the map to the users location and plotting the nearest landfills to the user. The creation of a map that shows you the nearest landfills is something which can be very beneficial and is something which most people do not know.

One of the greatest take-aways from this project is to never stop asking questions, especially when an answer to a question is not present. Throughout my project and my research I was constantly coming across dead ends and blank stares and it was in these moments that instead of finding an answer, I found a new question which was even more important than the last. Though this process is very frustrating, ultimately it has lead to some very interesting discoveries. Practically speaking, what I've learned about trash cannot be easily stated. I have lived, breathed and thought about trash for almost nine months now and it is difficult to understand what life was like prior to thinking about trash. Looking forward, I know that my lifestyle has changed, my thoughts about waste have changed and I hope the community around me has also changed. I do not know in what capacity my studies of trash will continue but I hope that they do and I look forward to finding new questions that have yet to be discovered.