With development of e-waste related legislation in China, formal recycling activities are designated in some areas while informal ones are illegally transferred to emerging areas to avoid supervision. However, the resulting environmental impact and ecological risks are not clear. Here, we investigated the discharge of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) to soil and aquatic environments by e-waste recycling activities in the Lian River Basin, China. The study area included a designated industrial park in the traditional e-waste recycling area (Guiyu, known as the world's largest e-waste center), several emerging informal recycling zones, and their surrounding areas and coastal area. A total of 27 PCBs were analyzed, and the highest concentration was found in an emerging site for soil (354 ng g−1) and in a traditional site for sediment (1350 ng g‐−1) respectively. The pollution levels were significantly higher in both the traditional and emerging recycling areas than in their respective upstream countryside areas (p = 0.0356 and 0.0179, respectively). Source analysis revealed that the traditional and emerging areas had similar PCB sources mainly associated with three PCB technical mixtures manufactured in Japan (KC600) and the USA (Aroclor 1260 and Aroclor 1262). The PCB pollution in their downstream areas including the coastal area was evidently affected by the formal and informal recycling activities through river runoff. The ecological risk assessments showed that PCBs in soils and sediments in the Lian River Basin could cause adverse ecotoxicological consequences to humans and aquatic organisms.