Electronic waste recycling operations in some parts of Asia are conducted using rudimentary techniques which result in workplace and environmental contamination with toxic metals and persistent organic pollutants. This study reports concentrations of 14 polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), from tri- to deca-brominated, in 31 samples of soil, sediment, dust or ash collected in the vicinity of e-waste recycling sites in Guiyu (southeast China) which were engaged in common activities such as dismantling, shredding, solder recovery, acid processing and open burning. The concentrations detected in this study far exceed those reported previously in urban soil and sediment and are consistent with or exceed those reported in previous studies around e-waste processing facilities. Some of the highest PBDE concentrations reported to date (e.g. 390 000 ng g dw (∑ 14 PBDEs)) were found in a sample collected from a site used for open-burning of e-waste, while an average concentration of 220 000 ng g dw (∑ 14 PBDEs) occurred in sediments impacted by circuit board shredding. A decrease in PBDE concentrations observed with increasing distance from workshops in samples associated with acid processing of wastes provides evidence that such operations are a significant source of PBDEs to the environment. Principal components analysis reveals a complex PBDE congener distribution, suggesting contamination by two or even three commercial formulations consistent with the diverse range of wastes processed.