The changing face of Guiyu

As with nearly everything in China, Guiyu is undergoing a massive change. For many years, the area held a reputation as the world’s largest toxic waste dump, where electronics from the U.S. and Europe go to be burned and dumped on children’s playgrounds and in local lakes.

That perception is far, far from reality, says international journalist Adam Minter.

The National Development and Reform Commission, or NDRC – the economic planning agency for all of China – established a plan for an economically viable and more environmentally friendly Guiyu nearly a decade ago.

“They’ve targeted appliance and e-scrap recycling as a critical industry that needs further development. They’re pushing green recycling, yes, but their primary interest is the raw materials packed into those objects. Nobody ever talks about it but in 2006 NDRC named Guiyu a national demonstration site for circular economy development and e-scrap recycling. There’s been money flowing in there for eight years, now, and the place is much improved. But the real improvement is yet to come: with NDRC’s support, two private companies are installing a giant recycling park in Guiyu,” Minter wrote in an email to The journalist says he’s visited the companies involved in the development, and has visited the site of the recycling park.

“Activists who like to tell media that Guiyu is getting worse are either liars or ignorant (or both). It’s much improved and transforming. Then again, their ignorance is understandable to an extent. After all, Chinese law bans e-scrap imports … so how can a powerful government agency be working with the biggest processing site for those imports. To which I answer: you really don’t understand China if you don’t understand that contradiction. That’s just how it works here.”

At the same time, articles like this one  are appearing from within China, which Minter says is mostly accurate, but part of an overall confusion by the part of Chinese officials on how to deal with the problem of illegal electronics dumping.

“Producer responsibility programs are popping up, there’s infrastructure in place for consumer take-backs, and the consumer take-backs are actually happening. The hard part is that there are several different government agencies and private companies involved in this. One doesn’t always talk to the other. For example, MEP (the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection) has a very, very small role in the ramping up of China’s e-scrap recycling programs,” Minter says.

The journalist objects to the claim made by Hu Tao, chief scientist at the MEP and director of the academic board at the Policy Research Center for Environment and Economy, that “About 70 percent of the e-waste around the world has been transported to China,” Hu said. “There are eight foreign e-waste collection and distribution centers in the country. Among these, Guangzhou’s Guiyu Town in Shantou, Longtang Town in Qingyuan and Dali Town in Foshan are now gathering over 50 percent of that foreign e-waste in China.”

“It’s in MEP’s interest to blame the e-scrap problem on foreigners rather than on China’s inability to develop a domestic program,” said Minter. “In Guiyu, the traders will tell you that China’s domestically generated e-waste is now more than 50% of what flows through town.”

The figures quoted in the article do not support such volumes, Minter said. If we accept the article’s claim that China is producing 160 million units of recyclable electronics and appliances, that would mean the rest of the world would have to send at least that much – and more – to Guiyu to make domestic supply the minority of what is being processed in Guiyu and other areas around the country.

The presence of these consumer takeback programs, however fledgling they may be, and the further development of China’s recycling infrastructure, is a good sign that the rest of the world needs to take a closer look at what China is doing in areas like Guiyu – and not because they’re doing it poorly.


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