Plastic China: the illusion of China’s prosperity

TRANSLATED BY GRACE DEATKER AND STEPHANIE BENZIES

Consumer society has reached a dead end. Watching Chinese film director Wang Jiuliang’s images, the public uncovers a controversial issue: the plastic waste disposal industry in China.

In his book Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter describes both a controversial and lucrative world where piles of waste become colossal fortunes, paid back to individuals and the State. The truth is all the more bitter.

Still from the film Plastic China.

Wang Jiuliang, an independent film director and photographer, has been interested in ecological movements for a long time; his first two films evoked many environmental questions. Beijing Besieged by Waste, his first documentary released in 2011, focused on the heaps of waste piled up around China’s capital. He then filmed Plastic China, a documentary that earned him the 2016 IDFA Special Jury Award for First Appearance, an award for new filmmakers from the International Documentary Film Festival of Amsterdam. His close-ups of unknown workers’ faces makes the film incredibly poignant, provoking strong emotions without necessarily resorting to explanations. An abridged version has been very popular with the media.

The dark side of China’s recycling industry

The documentary follows the daily life of two families in a village in Shandong Province in the north-east of China. They sort and recycle plastic waste from other countries in Asia, Europe and the United States. The residents literally live between mountains of plastic waste and in the constant stench of the incinerators.

The state of the workers’ health is worrying. The head of the family, Kun, refuses to consult a doctor because he does not want to pay the medical bills: he simply does not have the money. Living in this environment, even knowing all the dangers, the majority of adults succumb to these poor working conditions. “Cardiovascular diseases and cancer are very common in areas that produce plastics. Six months after filming the workers, Chloracne appeared on my forehead”, the director revealed in an interview with Pengpainews.

Living in a pile of rubbish

The images are striking. Children rummage through the waste looking for their toys. A girl washes herself with visibly polluted water. A little boy puts a used, dirty nozzle in his mouth. The parents work to provide them with a better quality of life but despite everything, they still live in a pile of rubbish.

Still from the film Plastic China.

Still from the film Plastic China.

The Kun and the Peng families represent two different social classes. They demonstrate a particular aspect of the recycling industry. That is, practically no townspeople do the sorting because it is a job for exiled workers. Highlighting the social inequalities, the documentary shows that the sorting requires intensive labour. These family sweatshops are of a major importance and take the place of large industries. “Through studies we have discovered that from Shandong all the way to Guangdong, passing by Hebei, the family sweatshops still play an important role within the industry”, Wang Jiuliang explains to Pengpainnews. But it is still completely illegal.

“The world’s rubbish tip”: Who is to blame?

“The United States offers 9 dollars to ‘sell’ one tonne of plastic waste. A sum that isn’t even sufficient to leave the port. Even if they generously offer us their waste, it’s illegal”, reveals the director. Does this “international commercial hypocrisy” merit the blame? The film allows the environmental recycling centre in Berkeley, California to put forward its argument. “I think that the market for plastic waste will return to China because the Chinese offer double the price for the rubbish”, explains the manager Daniel Maher.

On the Baotou estate, in the north of the country, waste covers the country roads. Video still. Credit Alexis Demoment.

According to Wangyishudu, China represents 25% of the world’s plastic production and a third of its consumption. During 2014, the country alone produced 73.88 million tonnes and consumed close to 93.25 million. This deficit between supply and demand is the reason for the importation of plastics and collecting of waste. The profits generated from this market surpass that of recycling paper, iron and steel. Importing new plastic is three times more expensive than importing the used plastic.

A vicious circle

The large supply makes it impossible to reduce the imports of plastic waste. The legal treatment of waste by large industries is happening, but at the same time, the government’s efforts to outlaw illegal sweatshops are limited. This lucrative sector, with its lower cost of production, is rapidly disappearing in the coastal regions. The workers are not counting on the film to get them out of their misery. Most of them simply want to make a living. It is a vicious circle, which is directly due to Chinese economic policy.

Plastic China has two meanings. “Hiding beneath China’s prosperity is a question that has never before been raised: how can this country develop economically at such an impressive pace? The theme of plastic also evokes that of surgery: China’s present prosperity is therefore only an illusion”, says the director anxiously to the reporters of Nanfang Zhoumo. “If you only look at this land of waste on which you put your feet, you will never recognise that you are in China.”

Banner Photo: In the Inner Mongolian countryside, the tombs are just a few steps away from the waste mountains. Some of them, barely maintained, are even covered. Video still. Credit Alexis Demoment.

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