Accepted paper:

In the name of circularity: business slowdown in a Chinese recycling hub


Yvan Schulz (University of Oxford)
Anna Lora-Wainwright (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

Based on a case study of a "circular economy" industrial park located in a recycling town in China, this paper scrutinizes the concept and its implementation in that country. It points to the highly disruptive character of changes operated by the Chinese state in the name of increased circularity.

Paper long abstract:

The concept of a circular economy plays a crucial role in contemporary China. It has been enshrined in a national law in 2008 and repeatedly reaffirmed by the government thereafter. Among the "pilot projects" set up to turn the concept into reality, large industrial parks have drawn particular attention, and earned China a reputation as a leading country in the effort to move away from an unsustainable, "linear" economic model. This paper examines China's circular economy by juxtaposing theory and practice. It presents a case study of an industrial park built to house local companies in Guiyu (Guangdong Province), a town that specializes in e-waste recycling. Having visited Guiyu every year since 2012, we were able to observe the park's evolution, from mere architectural drawing to vast complex of multi-storied buildings. Based on ethnographic fieldwork, we argue that, while the park has certainly improved the environmental impact of recycling activities in Guiyu, it has also caused a significant slowdown of these activities. It was designed, built and managed in a thoroughly top-down manner, not reflective of local business practices and modes of organisation, which made it difficult for small companies to move into the park and adapt, and forced many of them to close down. Thus, as seen from Guiyu, China's project of a circular economy deserves to be questioned. It comes across as parachuted from above, oblivious of local reality, and at least as capable of disrupting existing circular material flows as it is of promoting new ones.

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