Just as the Obama administration rolled out a new e-waste management strategy, a team of MIT researchers have gained widespread media attention for their powerful depiction of just what happens to our gadgets when we discard them.

Through a new exhibit on display at New York’s Museum of Modern Art , the ten-member team presented visualizations of the paths taken by used electronics once their original owners have gotten rid of them. Part of the “Backtalk” project from MIT’s Senseable City Lab, the visualizations illustrate two different types of tracking technologies developed by the team. One includes refurbished laptops donated to non-governmental organizations and shipped throughout the world. Programmed to track their location and even take images of their surroundings with embedded cameras, the laptops then sent data and a picture back to MIT every 20 minutes.

MIT Backtalk Project
image via MIT

A second project placed GPS trackers on batteries, print cartridges and other devices that volunteers then discarded in Seattle. Team members could then observe how far e-waste traveled to reach recycling centers. Some items crossed the entire country before reaching recycling centers, an MIT release said.

According to the Backtalk Project’s web site, old electronics travel so far because recycling facilities are not well distributed. For example only 13 plants equipped and certified to properly process cathode ray tubes exist in the world, the web site said. Improperly discarded electronic waste can pollute and harm human health.

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