Trash is getting gamified.
While we're gamifying everything, we might as well gamify trash, too. The creator of a new e-trash can and complimentary "cryptocurrency based real-life game" hopes that there's a high-tech solution to a very old problem: litter.
The ECan, developed by Sean Auriti, a maker in Brooklyn, looks more or less like any other trash can, except it's got an infrared sensor to detect whenever something is deposited into it, a screen that allows whoever is throwing something away to ID themselves, and a barcode scanner that can help identify what's being thrown away (if it has a barcode). And solar panels to power the thing, of course. What's more, the ECan mines Emrals, a cryptocurrency Auriti invented, whenever something is thrown away.
"It's a more human version of Bitcoin because instead of being mined by machines, it'll be mined by real-world actions," Auriti told me. Future versions of the ECan will be wifi enabled, he said.
Auriti imagines a future where ECans are on every block, providing free internet and mining Emrals, which he hopes will eventually be exchanged as money or, at the very least, used to get discounts on products around town. It's an audacious plan for sure—at the moment, you have to plug in an identifying pin number to log in every time you want to throw something away. If a piece of trash doesn't have a barcode on it, you're supposed to take a picture of it before tossing it in the can. The interface looks like this:
Auriti has already made three ECans at his Brooklyn makerspace called Alpha One Labs, and has a working alpha of the Emrals app. He's currently demoing the tech at New York City's Consumer Electronics Week.
The ECan is surprisingly cheap for the technology it's got inside—Auriti put the first one together using a Raspberry Pi, cheap solar panels, a battery, and a touchscreen for $380. It's way more expensive than a standard trash can, sure, but that's not necessarily a deal-breaking price for a city.
"I want to do this globally," Auriti told me. "We're hoping to get a sponsor, maybe put a couple at a Yankees game or something to get people using them. People will see you taking pictures of trash and they'll ask what you're doing, and you'll say, 'I'm earning Emrals.'"
I'm not sure people are going to want to do that every time they throw away a banana peel or a burrito wrapper, but it's an interesting thought.
I poked around the Emrals app for a bit, too. It's clearly still a very early prototype (Auriti tells me it’s in alpha stage), but the concept is simple enough. Beyond earning Emrals for throwing away trash in the ECan, users can create a geotagged “dirt alert” when they see bits of litter around town and places an Emrals value on it. Another user then goes and cleans it up, and earns those Emrals.
Why the original dirt alerter wouldn’t just pick up the trash themselves is a good question, but for bigger jobs, it makes some sense. Current examples of “dirt alerts” are pieces of stripped bikes that are chained to bike racks in Brooklyn, graffitied mailboxes, and “dirty sneaker marks” on the top of a subway train—all things that aren’t easily cleaned up. Meanwhile, there’s also a few dirt alerts for banana peels and various litter that could have just as easily been picked up by the person who tagged it.
Whether the world needs gamified trash is certainly up for debate—Evgeny Morozov, author of To Save Everything: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, argued in The Wall Street Journal that BinCam, a similar smart recycling can, goes a bit too far.
“The bin doesn't force us to recycle, but by appealing to our base instincts—Must earn gold bars and rewards! Must compete with other households! Must win and impress friends!—it fails to treat us as autonomous human beings, capable of weighing the options by ourselves,” he wrote.
I’m not sure about that, but there are certainly some questions raised by the ECan’s mere existence: Can you actually make an environmental difference by gamifying the first part of the garbage process? (i.e., isn’t it more important to develop better landfills and garbage storage systems on the back end?) How many Emrals will I earn if I clean the graffiti off the ECan’s screen? Is anyone willing to really type in some potentially identifying information each time they throw something away?
I suspect we won’t know for quite some time, if ever, unless some city is willing to take a chance on this. Auriti says he’s working with a couple universities to study how people will actually use the ECan, and there would probably have to be some sort of pilot program before smart trash cans can become anything resembling a regular sight around cities. There are many, many thousands of trash cans in New York City alone, and a regular ol' metal bin costs much less than an internet-connected, solar-powered one with an infrared sensor.
In any case, Auriti believes in the project, and he’s whipped up working prototypes, which is more than you can say for a lot of bold new ideas in tech. “I want to live until I’m 150," he told me. "Part of the reason people die is because of pollution. If we can eliminate trash that’s all over the place, I think that can help.”