China cleans up electronic recycling

China cleans up electronic recycling

Mountains of old electronics

Guiyu in southern China was long considered the world's biggest electronics recycling site. And it was a highly polluting one at that. More than 5000 small family-run businesses recycled everything from screens to motherboards.

China cleans up electronic recycling

A million little pieces

Poor workers did much of the recycling — dismantling, sorting and processing the components by hand. This work often took place in homes or by the side of the road, and frequently with little or no protective gear.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Burning plastic and worse

But the process was very dirty. People burned parts or used toxic chemicals to separate precious metals and other materials from the components. The air was filled with toxins and the ground water became so polluted that it wasn't suitable for drinking.

China cleans up electronic recycling

A modern facility

In 2013, the provincial government stepped in. It built a large industrial park on the city's outskirts. If recyclers wanted to stay in business, they had to move to the facility, which was equipped with modern air and water filtration systems to protect the environment.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Smaller margins, cleaner air

By 2015, the facility was open for business. Having to rent space there cut into the profit margins of smaller companies. Some went bust, but the upside was that air quality improved dramatically. The streets are cleaner too, say residents.

China cleans up electronic recycling

No more foreign trash

This year, China decided it no longer wanted to be the world's dumping ground and banned imports of 24 kinds of waste. As a result, there are no more discarded and broken electronics arriving in Guiyu from Europe or the United States. Well, not officially.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Illegal imports

For years, China neglected local waste because so much was flowing in from abroad. It arrived better sorted than domestic trash and was more economical to process. Even now, some recyclers are turning to more lucrative illegally imported electronic waste.

China cleans up electronic recycling

Time to start separating the garbage?

But now Beijing plans to invest billions in household waste treatment over the next few years to deal with its domestic trash problem. According to local media reports, Chinese authorities are trying to encourage people to sort their trash properly at home.

China has cleaned up what was once the world's biggest hub for recycling electronics. But as the country bans trash imports, it may be driving some recyclers out of business.

For a long time, Guiyu in China was considered the world's biggest electronic trash dumping ground. Countless small businesses there dismantled old electronics to get to the precious metals and other materials they contained, leaving a trail of environmental destruction and health problems in their wake. China's government has cracked down on this practice and has forced businesses to move into an industrial park with water and air filters. The city has become much cleaner as a result. But now that China has banned imports of electronic and other trash, some businesses are struggling to survive.

hf/Reuters