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Film Review: PLASTIC CHINA – Mountains of plastic

“We’ll build a refuge and sleep there, and we can also make ourselves a blanket for the night.”

The taste of adventure for children wanting to feel like adults. A pity they’re not in a boy scout’s camp, but sitting on an enormous mound of plastic waste. The playground of Yi Jie, Ah Zi and Hi Qiu is a small plastic recycling plant in the town of Tsingtao, in the eastern province of Shandong.

The sweet faces of these children, smiling, never street-wise, are a real gift of PLASTIC CHINA, the documentary of Jiuliang Wang. A political statement, a subdued and touching denunciation of the evils of an insatiable consumerism that ties China to the rest of the advanced world.

In Tsingtao, there are about 5,000 small factories for recycling plastic with terrible environmental repercussions. Vast mounds of refuse on which scraggy sheep graze. “They are losing weight because they only eat plastic. When they are opened up at the abattoir, their stomachs are full of plastic”, a man recounts, who was probably once a shepherd.

In the port of Tsingtao our waste, our scraps, our bad habits land. China is the world’s first importer of waste (plastic, paper and metal) with tens of millions of tons arriving every year from the United States, Europe and Japan.

More than 7 million tons of plastic, 29 million of paper. The main relations are with the United States which, in 2016, sent more than a million tons of plastic waste and 13 million of paper to China, worth a total value of more than 5 billion dollars, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

A win-win that has contributed to making China the world factory (thanks to the use of the productive input from the recycling chain) and created more than 150 thousand jobs in the sector’s American industry.

The low cost of labour, the lack of any union protection, and the control of information has made China the ideal place to dump our rubbish, very convenient for the Chinese, or at least until 18 July 2017, when the Beijing government notified the WTO, the World Trade Organization, of the introduction, as from 1 January 2018, of the prohibition on importing a large category of solid waste. Among the 24 types listed, there is a lot of plastic (polymers of ethylene, vinyl chloride, Pet) and many mixed papers, unsorted paper (newspapers, flyers, etc.), economically less convenient as they are already separated from cardboard.

According to official declarations of some government officials this was the reason behind Beijing introducing the prohibition. Most of the material that arrives is contaminated, not adequately cleaned, or, in most cases, mixed with non-recyclable materials. This means a lot of manual work to sort the waste (a job that can be done only by hand) and its low quality for recycling into new products.

China’s decision to focus on ‘its pollution’ is a real shock for the First World, entrenched in its consumption models, paralyzed in its vices.

Showing the human and environmental costs of a waste management model ‘Made in the West’ that has dumped its negative aspects on others, PLASTIC CHINA has captured the attention of many Chinese. The Chinese government has been forced to intervene with a campaign against ‘foreign garbage’, a decisive move in response to, among others, the many scandals that have hit the recycling industry – from the illegal traffic of waste dumped in the landfills and toxic waste contamination by ‘bad exporters’, with the Americans and the British in the lead.

Kun, one of the main characters in PLASTIC CHINA, not so long ago (he is no more than thirty years old) was a farmer like many others, is now the boss of a small plastic recycling plant, where he lives surrounded by rubbish and unhealthy conditions with his wife, mother and little QiQi who is four years old.

“I make a living by recycling plastic, it’s not bad for a peasant. I don’t know what else to do to keep my family.”

Peng works for him, for six dollars a month. All the family of Peng work in the rubbish industry. A dirty job that only Peng (despite the insults and attacks from Kun) is willing to do. Rummaging through the rubbish, selecting what is recyclable, they separate it and then wash it.

“I’ve been here for four years. They diagnosed me with arthrosis. I can’t keep my family, I’ve five children. They never went to school, I’m like a bird that flies here and there looking for food. Next year I’ll return home, to Sichuan, and there the children can go to school. School is free there.” (Peng)

Without Peng, Kun could not go ahead with his production, transforming plastic into a grey mush from which you get little grey balls sold to be used in making new plastic objects. The never-ending cycle of plastic. Without Peng, who burns and breathes all the ‘unprocessed’ plastic, Kun could not fulfil his ambitions – send his son to school, take his mother to Beijing, buy a new car.

“I want to buy a car so people can see me in the village. Even the poorest man had a car when I went to my sister’s wedding”.

“Everything I earn is reinvested in the plant [..]. After I’ve finished with the production, we can afford the fees for the school, it costs 65 dollars a month. The cost of electricity has increased, this month 800 dollars, then there are the taxes”. (Kun)

Peng is an alcoholic and does not seem to care about the future of his four children. The fifth will be born right under our eyes in the middle of the rubbish. The mother stopped rummaging through the plastic a few minutes before giving birth and begins again a few minutes after. For dinner there is fish caught by Yi Jie and Ah Zi from the dump-rivers, where there is no longer any life.

However, it is the children Jiuliang Wang turns his attention on, on little Yi Jie, with the sweet, penetrating and lively eyes. She is eleven years old and can no longer go to school because his father can no longer afford it. For Yi Jie, this is his world, nestled under the mountains of plastic, where real treasures can be found. A broken Barbie doll, sunglasses, singing dolls, new lipsticks, a Dutch sim card with a message, Welcome to China. The stickers from a book on animals in English. This is school for Yi Jie – to copy the names, learn to write in English – goat, duck, chicken.

Jiuliang Wang is caustic and clear about the conditions in which the children in China live compared to their Western peers. Kun wants QiQi to go to school and would also like little Yi Jie to go. School is important for him, it is what makes the difference between living in Beijing and among the mountains of rubbish and the stagnant water that drains out of the machines, putrid and contaminated, which little Yi washes his face in.

Jiuliang Wang leaves the issue of inequality to the final message of PLASTIC CHINA, in a succession of eloquent scenes.

QIQi’s school, the gleaming car showroom where Kun buys his car (11 thousand dollars in installments), the trip to Beijing with all the family to visit Mao Tse-Tung’s Mausoleum, as his mother had always desired. Instead, Peng, is at a bus stop station with Yi Jie and Ah Zi. He doesn’t have the money to buy the tickets for the trip. It costs 85 dollars to return home to Sichuan, to their mother, where his children can go to school.

“All the people will have a well-off life!” so says the slogan in front of the mausoleum of the Great Helmsman.

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