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E-Waste: The New Face of Transboundary Pollution

March 2003

Citation: ELR 10234

Author: Paula M. Boland

I. Introduction

The electronics industry is one of the world's largest and fastest growing manufacturing industries. However, the dynamism of electronic manufacturing that has transformed life in the second half of the 20th century has also resulted in serious environmental and health impacts. Both technological innovation and market expansion continue to accelerate the replacement process and new applications for electronic equipment are continually increasing. These trends have led to the rapid obsolescence of electronic products. Consumers now rarely repair broken electronics since replacement is often cheaper and more convenient and better products are continually emerging. A consequence of this growth, combined with rapid product obsolescence, is that discarded electronics is now the fastest growing waste stream in the industrialized world. Computers, monitors, microwaves, stereos, copiers, television sets, and cellular phones discarded by both the consumer and business are the inevitable byproduct of the technological revolution. The common name for this waste stream is E-waste.

The management of electronic waste has become a national and international concern as the volume of this particular waste stream continues to grow. The same entrepreneurs and companies that benefitted from the technological revolution have failed to apply their brilliance and resources to find the solution for the rapidly growing waste piles. Instead, they are passing along the costs to the public and the environment in the form of delayed cleanup, environmental contamination, destruction of natural resources, and health consequences that will last for generations. Recent studies and news articles have pointed to the dangers to human health and the environment posed by the hazardous substances found in many electronic components. A computer or television set, for instance, generally contains 4-10 pounds of lead. Mercury, cadmium, and other heavy metals are also commonly used in such equipment. The presence of these and other dangerous substances in electronic products has rendered conventional methods of waste disposal environmentally unsuitable.

Paula Boland is an attorney specialized in environmental and international affairs. Although born in the United States, she received most of her academic and professional experience in Argentina. Paula worked for three years on regulatory and corporate compliance issues at the law firm of Klein & Franco in Buenos Aires. Her strong interest in the protection of the environment led her to the LL.M. program in Environmental Law at Vermont Law School, from which she graduated cum laude. Following a clerkship with the Environmental Enforcement Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, Paula has assisted a number of environmental nongovernmental organizations in the development of conservation projects to be carried out in Latin America. In October 2002, Paula joined the United Nations (U.N.) Association of the National Capital Area, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to strengthening and enhancing U.S. participation in the U.N. system. Since May 2003, she has been serving as the Chair of the Young Professionals for International Cooperation.

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