Plastic China, Plastic World: A Recyclable Waste Crisis

Nikolaos Panaousis
Jun 3 · 6 min read
Paul Louis (Wikimedia Commons)

Thoughts on Plastic China — a documentary

Newspaper articles on Prince William’s grand wedding is the magic cape for the kids; eye patches from the Qantas Airways is the protection mask for the workers; a Dutch SIM card brings in a message of “Welcome to China” once inserted to a cell phone. Welcome to the land of “Plastic China.” As the world’s biggest plastic waste importer, China receives ten million tons per year from most of the developed countries around the world. With high external costs impacting the local environment and health, these imports are reborn here in these plastic workshops into “recycled” raw materials for the appetite of China — the world factory. This waste is then exported back to where they came from with a new face such as manufactured clothing or toys. [Welcome to] the “United Nations of Plastic Waste.” (

In a town of five thousand waste-recycling workshops, not far from Beijing, one workshop sheds the light on environmental and social challenges whose different dimensions are addressed through the eyes of an eleven-year old girl, Yi Jie, her family, and her family’s employer, the owner of the recycling workshop.

The environmental challenge that the film addresses is that of plastic pollution, in general, but it would be an understatement to limit the scope of the film at that. China, as mentioned in the film, is the biggest importer of plastic waste from developed countries (e.g., Korea, Japan, USA, etc.), and as the seemingly wasted and used — also toxic — plastic makes its way back to China, families like Yi Jie’s are left to sort it and deal with the high external costs that come along — threatening the local environment and their own health.* The problem, however, is that the imported plastic is mixed with other non-recyclable materials that are burnt and discarded in the surrounding area. As a result, air, water, and soil pollution inhibit the workers’ and the residents’ abilities to protect themselves against the toxicity surrounding them.

Goats and other animals can be seen roaming around the wasteland, consuming plastic and other materials that are injected in them and thus slowly killing them. The people are also vulnerable to this situation: at one point, Yi Jie is seen walking along the river’s polluted banks, picking up dead fish — whose deaths, almost certainly, can be attributed to the plastic pollution — which she later takes home and cooks them for dinner.

The documentary is produced in a way that it takes no position on the issue in which it reports. It merely provides us a window through which we can draw our own conclusions, speculations, and theories. One of them is the idea that this seemingly local issue is not local by nature — it involves a global dynamic process that should be also addressed in a broader context in which environmental justice concerns are addressed.

Yi Jie, through the boundaries of the workshop in which she lives and works, encounters waste from from all over the world, which she often keeps and utilizes to her advantage — books, toys, fliers, dictionaries, etc. Thus, she is a second-hand consumer from a country that initially created the very products that she is now tasked to recycle — creating an endless cycle in which workshop workers are found to be the most disadvantaged ones. As Peng, Yi Jie’s father, and Kun, the boss, state, this “dirty” job is their only option to sustain and feed their families. And, unfortunately, this is the reality for many uneducated and unskilled workers across China and around the world — they are the most vulnerable groups in terms of industrial, safety, economic, and environmental standards.

Their circumstances, however, don’t stop them from being ambitious; higher income and better economic flexibility seem to be what they are all striving for, yet they cannot easily achieve it. Their lifestyle also reveals family dynamics and the physical, as well as emotional, tolls that these families are subjected to. This leads to the question: Who is to blame, and what can be done to stop and prevent this social and environmental injustice issue from prevailing?

From a global standpoint, the connection that the film is trying to establish, in my opinion, is the following: Environmental pollution by plastic waste in China is caused by the globalized market’s desire to consume — or, mass consume — which later discards its waste in less regulated (environmentally, socially, and economically) areas such as the one in the film, poisoning and killing the very individuals that help sort and create the very products we use. The film repeatedly tries to convey this image by putting emphasis on the waste that the kids play with: it is toys and products in English, which makes us, indirectly, responsible for the conditions these individuals experience. It successfully induces a feeling of sympathy and responsibility by using such images, pushing the idea that our current globalized order’s political and economic boundaries are rendered redundant and that certain issues transcend conventional divides, by imagining the world as a whole, connected community that needs to act beyond its sphere of comfort to provide justice and reparations where its influence extends. Of course, the concerns of the film are not news to anybody; since the emergence of neoliberalism, the world has accepted that adverse effects caused by market mechanisms will always be present, and that it is a matter of how we deal with them, and lessen their severity, that matters.

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

For the older generations, Peng and Kun, their work has already taken a toll on them. Kun seems to be worried of potential carcinogenic tumors on his body, and the anxiety of these conditions has pushed Peng to alcoholism. However, there seems to be a consensus that an education for their children has the potential to lift them from poverty and allow them to escape their current toxic conditions. The film’s objective stance and non-present political message to the matter doesn’t explicitly provide a solution to the challenges, but the constant emphasis on the kids and their resilient ambitions and dreams for the future possibly suggests rescuing the younger generation before it is too late. Education is one way to do that, and the only way recognized in the film by the two families, but there is also plenty of room left for speculation and discussion. Perhaps this is another goal of the film: to not simply provide a solution and an outcome but stimulate thinking by allowing the viewer to explore how recycling plastic waste takes a toll on the environment and how it results to the intersection of poverty, disease, and agonizing psychological struggles.

The viewers of the film might feel an urgency to do something about this problem in China, but, I would suggest, the best course of action is to address these issues at home as to how to keep waste off our communities and process it effectively and efficiently, without having to export it — which, can consequently have a global impact. Additionally, even the most hardcore proponents of deregulation and free-markets seem to agree that certain interventions to protect the most vulnerable are needed. These ideas have been part the of discussion for decades, and films such as Plastic China, characterized by their apolitical role, can ignite new interest for change.

Plastic China is available for streaming on Amazon.

*On January 1, 2018 China banned the import of many recyclables, forcing other countries — the West, primarily — to reevaluate their waste disposal practices.

Related reading on the issue:

Nikolaos Panaousis

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Writing, talking about global affairs, creating connections, researching, and staying engaged locally and globally. 🌍

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