A look inside China's most notorious e-waste town

Guiyu is known as the world's largest e-waste site, but is trying to clean up its act

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Guiyu is the town in China where your old electronics go to die. For years, it's been one of the main locations in the world where PCs, phones, and other discarded products are shipped in to be pulled apart and recycled. The work is dirty and even hazardous, but lately Guiyu has been trying to clean up its act. Following is a slideshow to give you an idea of what it's like.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

The land of e-waste

Come to Guiyu, a town in southern China, and you'll find discarded electronics of every kind. The local economy specializes in recycling e-waste, including mobile phones, PC motherboards, and the plastic casing on VCRs. Old electronics pile up in each neighborhood, waiting to be broken down and processed.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

A growing trade

Environmental experts say the town is probably the world's biggest e-waste site, and it has made a business of recycling old electronics for over two decades. Originally, many of the products came from foreign countries via Hong Kong, but increasingly the e-waste coming to Guiyu is domestic. It includes old monitors from brands such as Dell, Acer, and Sony.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Turning trash into gold

Residents in the town of 200,000 buy discarded electronics from dealers, break them down for parts, and sell what remains for cash. In this photo, a woman removes components from a pile of PC power supplies and circuit boards.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Harvesting

A worker cuts the CPU and memory chips from a motherboard using an electric circular saw. It's a common activity at hundreds of small workshops around Guiyu.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Phones

Other workshops specialize in mobile phones. After a worker pulls off the outer casing, another methodically removes tiny chips from the motherboard and places them in cups.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Processing

Some homes in Guiyu buzz with the sound of plastic and metal being shredded. After the electronics are stripped of the more valuable components, workers break down the remaining material into tiny bits for resale. Businesses that sell recycled plastic can be found on most street corners.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Chips for sale

Used processors are sold wholesale in Guiyu for as little as 1 yuan ($0.16). The old chips sometimes end up in toys or electronic greeting cards.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

The environmental toll

The e-waste business comes at a heavy price, and Guiyu has been called the world's most poisonous town. In the past, recycling was often done with little or no regard for health and safety, and toxic substances leaked into the air and water. Workers used fire and acid to remove precious metals from circuit boards.

IDG News Service/Michael Kan

Controlling the waste

Local authorities have intervened and are encouraging businesses to move the more dangerous recycling into a newly opened "special economic zone." The town has high hopes that it will clean up the recycling business and make it safe, and it's been cracking down on the illegal burning of waste.

Signs of a better future

Thanks to the tighter restrictions, residents say conditions in Guiyu have improved somewhat. But environmental experts say it will take time to develop the economic zone and promote safer recycling practices.

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