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Plastic Waste Documentary Brings China's Environmental Crisis Home to Netizens

A shot from the documentary Plastic Kingdom. Screen capture from Youku.

A shot from the documentary “Plastic Kingdom”. Screen capture from Youku.

China’s pursuit of high growth at any cost in the past decades has led to serious environmental pollution that the government can’t cover up and the public can’t ignore. Adding to the problem of the smog are garbage and plastic waste.

Plastic Kingdom“, a documentary outlining how imported plastic waste pollute many parts of the country, has shocked many and sparked discussion after it was broadcast and reported on in various media outlets.

Independent filmmaker Wang Jiuliang spent three years on the film, visiting plastic recycling centers around China to unveil the darker side of the industry, which isn't well known among the public.

The film shows how the sorting process of plastic waste is harmful to those workers involved. Besides the bad smell, much of the waste contains dangerous materials with poisonous or corrosive elements, to which the workers could easily be exposed. The use of water in the recycling process also causes serious local pollution. In many cases, waste water is discharged into rivers without any treatment, making both surface water and groundwater unusable and harmful. Burning plastic waste produces large amounts of exhaust and heavily pollutes the air, while in many locations with plastic recycling centers cancer is common.

China is the world’s largest recycler and imports about 70 percent of the recyclable plastics and e-waste on the global market.

Asides from imported plastic waste, China also produces a huge amount of trash. In fact, Wang gained fame three years ago for “Beijing Besieged by Waste“, another documentary about waste disposal and pollution around the capital.

With a population of about 20 million, the growing city of Beijing produces 30,000 tons of waste each day. Wang traveled around the city and visited 460 legal and illegal landfills from 2008 to 2010 to document the collection of garbage and excrement, the environmental calamity and the people who survive off of these landfills, including scavengers building a precarious livelihood, green spaces forming on top of waste, and livestock being fed trash. The documentary offered an informative and alarming portrait of urban ecology.

The project started with Wang wondering where Beijing's massive amounts of waste ended up. He used Google Earth to plot hundreds of landfill sites over three years, creating a map of dots that formed a huge circle around the capital.

Wang Jiuliang's map on rubbish sites around Beijing city.

Wang Jiuliang's map on rubbish sites around Beijing city.

The film aroused widespread public concerns and was credited with having prodded the Beijing municipal government into allocating 10 billion RMB ($1.65 billion) to cleaning up waste.

While the Chinese authorities have long been indifferent to the environment as it pursued economic development, combating pollution has become a greater concern among the public as they've learned more about foul air, contaminated produce and polluted water. According to United Nations data from 2013, about 70% of the 20 million to 50 million tons of electronic waste produced globally each year is dumped in China, with most of the rest going to India and African nations. China appears to be the largest e-waste dumping site in the world.

For the past decade, the southeastern town of Guiyu, nestled in China's main manufacturing zone, has been a major hub for the disposal of e-waste. Hundreds of thousands of people here have toiled dismantling the world's electronic junk.

“The numerous economic achievements China has made in the last 30 years are worthless and cheap in comparison to the cost to the environment and people's living standards,” said Wang when he was interviewed by AP last December.

People have expressed their shock and anger on China’s Twitter-like Weibo after watching reports about “Plastics Kingdom” on state television.

A journalism professor Yang Boxu with Peking University slammed the waste recycling industry as “letting Chinese die without descendants”. Weibo user “Living at a temple in mountain” (@兰若山居) exclaimed:


No wonder the rich and powerful have been busy emigrating. China has become a big garbage site. And we as grassroots have to remain miserable [live with the garbage site]

Lawyer Xu Zhibiao commented with sarcasm:


Because they have immigrated or are ready to immigrate to America. China no longer has their homeland.

“Sisyphus pushing the stone uphill” highlighted a scene from “Plastic Kingdom”:


Asked by the filmmaker why he's struggled to make money by working on waste, the sorting worker said he’s done this for his kid and parents. Then the lens turned to his kid in a waste pile appearing dirty and dull-looking. How could a person become so ignorant and helpless! How can a person live so inferior!

Tecent news portal featured “Plastic Kingdom” on its public goods special section and attracted more than a thousand comments. “Cappuccino” moaned:


So grieved after seeing this. In such a terrible environment the workers deal with waste and their children grow up. Where are the regulations? Doesn’t the boss know this violates laws and ruins his hometown? Bastard.

“Tolerance” believed the industry survives on contemporary Chinese money philosophy:


Chinese philosophy of making money: people aren’t concerned how you make money; poverty instead of prostitution is laughed at.

“Summer” exclaimed:


I’m disgusted and enraged seeing this. I’m wondering whether the Chinese will die out after decades due to the worsening environment, without the Americans and Japanese beating us.

Chinese netizens also commented on the recycling industry and deteriorating environment on another news portal, NetEase.

“shuangziyijia” believed the problem is one of corruption:


The authorities would sell everything for money……their children have immigrated abroad……The absolute power without supervision is the biggest cancer in human history

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