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Introduction

By now we've all heard of the damage that carbon emissions can do to the environment. Al Gore's warnings about global climate change and its discontents, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and even a planned climate change concert all weave together to get our attention about the growing problem. But the inconvenient truth of the matter is that there's more to pollution than carbon emissions.

Let's do a thought experiment. Chances are you're reading this on a computer. Or if you aren't, there's probably a computer somewhere in your life. Now think about that computer and everything connected to it. Network cables, keyboards, mice, printers, routers, switches, toasters, space stations. Everything. And think about all of the electronics, computer components, and random gadgets you've gone through in your lifetime. Now bring all that together in a big pile somewhere in your mind. Impressive, isn't it?

And that's just your pile. There are billions of similar piles being built up every second all over the world by people just like you, all consisting of discarded electronics, or 'e-waste'.

Women in Guiyu

Women picking through old computer wires in Guiyu, China.
Photo © Basel Action Network 2006.

Now it's time for the scary statistics part. More than 4.6 million tons of this kind of waste turned up in landfills in the United States in 2000, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In a lifetime, the average UK citizen produces over 3.6 tons of e-waste. E-waste also accounts for 70% of the United States' toxic waste, while pound-for-pound making up only 2% of its total landfill waste.

And where does all of this waste end up? According to the Basel Action Network - a non-profit organization that aims to reduce the international trade of toxic waste - it gets exported to countries like China, India, and Pakistan where it is burned, melted, dumped into the river, and otherwise mishandled.

This Sunday is Earth Day. So why not pitch in and do something simple that will make an impact on the environment around you? This guide will give you an overview of how you can make a difference in the tide of e-waste, starting with your very own network.

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