Film: How China became the world’s rubbish dump

A new documentary about plastic reveals how China has become the world’s dumping ground

Wang Jiuliang’s first documentary, Beijing Besieged by Waste, made the public aware for the first time how China’s capital was being encircled by rubbish dumps. This prompted the government to clean up the almost 1,000 landfill sites around the city. In his first media interview, Wang talked to chinadialogue about his new documentary and his thoughts about waste.

chinadialogue (CD): Your documentary Plastic China is almost complete. How does its focus differ from your earlier film, Beijing Besieged by Waste?

Wang Jiuliang (WJ): Beijing Besieged focused on waste and pollution around Beijing. Plastic China looks at how plastic waste from around the world ends up in China. But it’s not just plastic that ends up here, so I’m working on another film, Dumping Ground of the World. This will mean travelling all over China looking for imported waste.

The “plastic” here has two meanings: first it refers to the plastic waste, but at a deeper level it refers to the weakness beneath our surface prosperity; the way plastic surgery only improves appearance, not the reality.

Years of rapid growth have made China appear prosperous, but pollution is having a huge impact on health. If your life is at risk, what use is earning money? Smog, water pollution, soil pollution… while China’s growth appears incredible, it is actually cheap and fragile. So I chose the English name Plastic China, to voice that theme.

Is this just a Chinese problem? China has come in for a lot of international criticism over environmental issues, but actually the international community isn’t at all blameless – a lot of waste is exported to China.

Another more hidden issue is exports. China is the world’s biggest manufacturer of cheap goods; it’s the “factory of the world”. When those goods are shipped overseas, what goes with them? Resources and energy. What gets left in China? Pollution.

Chinese products move to your country, and the waste comes back. Manufacturing and waste disposal both happen in China. You consume, and our role is to serve.

When people overseas enjoy the convenience of goods “made in China”, do they consider the huge price paid elsewhere?

CD: Can you tell us something about the people featured in the film?

WJ: We filmed how plastic waste from all over the world is dealt with in China, so we focused on areas where the waste is gathered.

We spent three years filming, interviewing people involved at every stage of the process: rubbish collectors, sorters, people who make the machinery that produces plastic goods, factory owners, and people who are directly or indirectly involved with the industry. We got to know them all well.

The main character is an 11 year old girl. Four years ago her father took her with him when he found a job processing waste plastic. She should have been in school, but her father promised he’d work to save money and then send her home to study. But he never did – not because he didn’t want to, but because they didn’t earn enough money. After four years of work they were no closer to their dreams, and the girl ended up working alongside her father – she’s almost 12 and can mostly handle the work. How can a nation be strong when people live like that?

The factory boss is young, in his thirties. He and his family work hard, putting up with the health risks of working with plastics. The factory causes a lot of pollution which affects the locals. But he’s willing to do anything to earn the money to buy a car. Someone pays that price just for a car. It’s absurd. And why does he want a car? So he looks successful.

This man reflects values that are commonly held in China. When China tells the world how well-off its people are, how strong the nation is, how scientifically advanced it is, is that a real understanding of China?

CD: There was a huge response to Beijing Beseiged, which led directly to the city spending massive amounts of money to clean up rubbish dumps. How have things changed since then?

WJ: Since the situation came to light in 2010 there have been reports by over 200 different Chinese and overseas media outlets, bringing the matter to even wider attention. In 2010, Beijing budgeted 10 billion yuan to clean up almost 1,000 sites between 2011 and 2016. In late 2011 and early 2012 I found that many sites had been dealt with: some piles of rubbish had been removed, grass was growing again and environmental remediation was under way.

But more recently I’ve seen things go backwards. Rubbish is being dumped again next to one site that had been cleaned up. Locals complain that they don’t know who to blame, as it is done secretly at night. Even if you spend large amounts of money cleaning up sites, you need effective monitoring, or the problem will just return.

CD: You’ve said that nobody is safe from this kind of pollution. What did you mean?

WJ: Rubbish doesn’t just harm people who come into direct contact with it. The stench from sites is enough to leave you dizzy. The first time I went to one I could only stand it for 10 minutes, but people spend days or months there looking for things to resell.

There’s an obvious impact on people living nearby. The smell is carried on the wind. There’s also burning – almost every site will have intermittent fires giving off thick black smoke.

People living further away might not know about the dumping, but they’re affected through the food chain. Leachate from the dump can pollute groundwater, the water is used in agriculture, and then that food ends up on our dinner tables. Herds of livestock graze on rubbish tips. They eat the rubbish, we eat the sheep. It’s as if we just ate the rubbish ourselves. So nobody is safe.

CD: Can anything be done to reduce the harm? Can we learn from how waste is dealt with overseas?

WJ: What can be done? Eliminate waste, reduce waste, or make it harmless. Developed nations export their waste to other countries, but China can’t copy them. What will humanity do when it runs out of places to send waste?

My personal view is that everyone, every country, loses.

Originally I wanted to look at how developed nations sort waste, but consumerism is even worse there than in China and they produce much more waste. So in that sense, what are we meant to learn from them? The reason their cities are cleaner is because they have better political and economic policies to conceal the waste – one of which is to export it.

Why do they want to export it? Because recycling it is too expensive. Producing a tonne of plastic pellets from waste is more expensive than producing it from oil in the first place. They prefer to produce more plastic: it’s cheaper and more efficient than recycling.

CD: But as long as people live they’re going to produce waste and use energy.

WJ: In the past we produced waste – so did animals and plants – but it wasn’t a problem. It became a problem when industrial production started. That created a culture of consumption. We wear something once or twice then discard it – not because it can’t be worn, but because it’s out of date. Your mobile phone might last for 10 years, but you throw it away after two – not because it’s broken, but because you want a new model. The world is trapped by capitalism and consumption.