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'Plastic China' documentary looks at underbelly of recycling in China

By Rebecca Kanthor | PLASTICS NEWS CHINA

  Sundance poster

The plastics recycling industry had a high-profile spotlight in late January when the Chinese documentary film "Plastic China" earned a place at the Sundance Film Festival, the annual showcase for independent films in Park City, Utah.

Director Wang Jiuliang, whose previous documentary film "Beijing Besieged by Waste" deals with trash pickers in the Chinese capital, tackles the plastics recycling industry in China, giving a look into the lives of those who do the hard and dirty work of sorting imported plastics by hand.

The film zeroes in on the life of one little girl who is growing up in a plastics recycling plant in Shandong province. Eleven-year-old Yi-Jie learns about the world by helping her parents sort imported plastics, plays among the scrap and contaminated runoff water and wants to go to school, but her father says he can't afford it.

A short version of the film was released on the internet in 2014 and attracted a lot of interest. While China has its fair share of high-tech plastics processing plants and the government's 2013 Green Fence initiative put much tighter regulation on the import of foreign scrap plastic, this film focuses on those whose lives are most intimately affected by the global flow of recycled scrap plastic.

Backed by CNEX, a Hong Kong film production nonprofit promoting Chinese documentary films, the film was the runner-up for the Special Jury Award at the 2016 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, and appeared at Sundance as part of the festival's first-ever category of films called "The New Climate."

Rudimentary practices are revealed in the recycling plant. In more than one scene, workers use a lighter and their sense of smell to identify and sort plastics. And the effect of the recycling industry on the surrounding community is clearly shown.

The elderly complain of the stench, a farmer must remove large stray pieces of scrap plastics that have blown onto his field and are hindering the growth and harvest of his crops, and the community can no longer drink contaminated well water.

Adults straightforwardly discuss the impact of their work on their health and their environment but remain steadfast that this is the only way they can support their families, as children climb over giant piles of scrap like mountains and find inventive ways to play with used syringes and surgical gloves.

While the film tells its story through the lens of the scrap sorters and the conditions they work under, Wang says it is more broadly about the price people are forced pay to improve the lives of their families.

In a video posted in 2014 on Hong Kong's Phoenix TV's website, Wang described why he made the film.

"Your goal is to make money, but what is the ultimate purpose of making money?" he said. "When you made money and your life quality was indeed improved, you lost health and life. Then, what is the meaning of making money?

"Although you made a lot of money, is it worth it when your family lives in an environment like this?" he said. "Thus, I named this film 'Plastic China.' China is a country that is facelifted, concealed, faked and unnatural. In other words, though it looks good exteriorly, it has a lot of interior problems."

Repeated attempts to set up an interview with Wang and with executives at CNEX were unsuccessful. The film may have struck a discordant note with the Chinese government: While Chinese official state media features interviews with Wang, all trailers and clips of the film can no longer be found on the Chinese internet and social media.

A search for the film on China's WeChat messaging social media app, a mashup of Facebook and Twitter, prompts this message: "According to the relevant laws and policies, the search results can't be found."

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