China's Guiyu shifts away from crude processing

A town in southern China that's known as one of the world's most notorious destinations for e-scrap is undergoing a government-mandated makeover.

According to reports last week from English-language media outlets in China, all informal e-scrap processors in Guiyu will be required to move their businesses to a newly built industrial park by the start of 2016. As of late November, 400 "large workshops" had been persuaded to make the move. Still, approximately 3,000 small businesses had yet to vacate their operations, news reports indicated.

The e-scrap watchdog group that helped bring the world's focus to Guiyu confirmed that changes are taking place there. The Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) today issued a press release that noted its executive director, Jim Puckett, earlier this month made an unannounced visit to Guiyu alongside the leader of a Chinese environmental group. The release noted many former sites formerly used for crude processing of scrap electronics had been abandoned.

"This day of action at Guiyu has been promised for over a decade and it is remarkable to finally see it," Puckett stated in the release. "We are relieved that the clean-up has finally begun."

Guiyu, which has approximately 150,000 residents, is located in Guangdong Province, just outside of Puning. It has become a global symbol for the dangers and pitfalls of improper management of electronics.

Following the publication of the 2002 report and documentary "Exporting Harm" by BAN, CBS's "60 Minutes" traveled to Guiyu in 2008, dubbing it "one of the most toxic places on Earth." Since then, publications all over the world have reported on the environmental and human health dangers caused by the largely unregulated processing of scrap electronics for parts reuse, precious metals and other valuable materials.

While Puckett applauded the work of the government to finally take action, he also claimed the $230 million industrial park hasn't done enough for working conditions and safety.

"BAN observed that the basic harmful technologies employed there remain the same," the group's release stated. "Massive hand-cooking of circuit boards is still occurring, albeit with exhaust hoods and lead-tin vapor fumes that are now sucked into chimneys with fumes being scrubbed before release."

Adam Minter, a journalist whose 2013 book "Junkyard Planet" explored in-depth the lucrative and dangerous e-scrap activities in Guiyu, told E-Scrap News the town's transformation was a long time coming.

"Since the mid-2000s, high-level Chinese officials have signaled their interest in upgrading Guiyu into a modern e-waste hub," Minter said. "As they see it, Guiyu is a giant brownfield, hopelessly contaminated, but with the human and logistical infrastructure to become a national e-waste recycling hub."

He added, "There's optimism that the new park will not only maintain Guiyu's status as a hub, but will also enhance it."

Minter noted to fully improve processing conditions in Guiyu, electronics industry stakeholders in wealthy nations may have to share technological advances with China to help the country handle its own e-scrap.

"I don't think it's lost on China processors that U.S. companies that decry e-waste dumping in China have done nothing to help China deal with the much bigger tide of e-waste emerging in China. As Guiyu tries to do things right, it should behoove activists and Western processors to match their words with actions," Minter said.

BAN's Puckett, meanwhile, said his group is concerned other regions of the world could become dumping grounds now that Guiyu appears to be transforming.

"We fear that the externalizations of costs and harm will simply continue to new locations," noted the BAN release.

Photo caption: Recent reports indicate China's Guiyu is cutting back on informal electronics processing. Copyright Basel Action Network, 2015