Where do Old Cell Phones go?

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Last updated April 12, 2019

Where do old cell phones and other forms of discarded electronic equipment go? The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is trying to find out, working with both electronics recycling companies and educational not-for-profit organizations and using tracking software to find out just where used cell phones and other forms of e-waste actually end up.

“As our objects, buildings and cities become digitally controlled and smarter, they are also being embedded with an increasing amount of electronics,” says the director of MIT Senseable City Lab, Carlo Ratti.  “But what happens to these electronics once they are discarded? This is what our project set out to explore.  Initial results provide an unprecedented glimpse into the global e-waste chain and its pattern of reuse and disposal.”

A similar project that was also run by MIT, known as “Trash Track”, was run three years ago and tracked no less than 3000 items of electronic waste including used cell phones found that more than 75 per cent of those items did in fact ultimately reach recycling facilities.  The findings of that product were only released to the general public earlier this year.

Some of the results of the new project have started to be revealed by MIT researchers this week via a series of visualizations that are being staged in real time, which are being produced under the name of “Backtalk”, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.