Distributor:  Global Environmental Justice
Length:  82 minutes
Date:  2016
Genre:  Expository
Language:  Mandarin / English subtitles
Color/BW:  Color


Curator imageKen Berthel, Assistant Professor of Chinese, Whittier College

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Plastic China

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Reveals the unsafe conditions in which adults and children alike toil, as they seek to eke out a basic living by processing toxic plastic waste products.

Plastic China

This film was selected by Ken Berthel, Assistant Professor of Chinese, Whittier College

Why I chose this film
This polished and engaging documentary is of value to educators in numerous fields who wish to expose students to the impacts of consumption and globalization in China.

Plastic China is a film that inspires discussion about a number of salient topics, including globalization, modernity, rural-urban divide, and the human and environmental impacts of consumerist culture. As all of these issues are also raised in fictional works from the Chinese film canon —including Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle, Jia Zhangke’s The World, and even Zhang Yang’s Shower— presenting Plastic China as a testament to the real-life issues to which fictional counterparts refer can enhance the impact of fictional and documentary narrative alike.

Teacher's guide   
Please see the teacher's guide for maps, background information, suggested subjects, questions and activities.

Plastic China’s main character, Yi-Jie, is an unschooled 11-year-old girl whose family works and lives in a typical plastic waste household-recycling workshop. She learns about the outside world sorting through the plastic refuse imported from the USA, Europe, and Japan that surrounds her. Small packs of discarded instant black powder tells her the bitter taste of “coffee,” the English children’s learning cards teach her words like “summer” and “father’s day,” and discarded plastic dolls are her toys. This is her world.

Her father, Peng, had promised to send her to school five years earlier but not yet delivered. Instead, he spends much of his hard-earned money from the plastic workshop on alcohol. However, Yi-Jie keeps her wish alive of going to school one day, and we see her holding her playful campaign towards learning and schooling. Will she succeed to sit in a classroom and learn? Or will she succeed her parents as an illiterate laborer in the recycling workshop?

The environmental justice focus of the film

Plastic China reveals the unsafe conditions in which adults and children alike toil, as they seek to eke out a basic living by processing toxic plastic waste products that they know are polluting their rivers and lakes, contaminating the air that they breathe, and compromising their health in noticeably painful ways. The film exposes not only a disparity between Western lifestyles of consumption and those who deal with the concomitant waste, but also in the hierarchical structure of facility owners and the workers they employ for low compensation in unhealthy and sometimes abusive environments.



If time is short, a selection of four excerpts with a running time of 35 minutes can be viewed at Plastic China (Selected Excerpts)


Download the transcript (PDF)

Download the teacher's guide for Plastic China (PDF)

Director Jiu-liang Wang’s follow-up to debut documentary Beijing Beseiged By Waste (2011), Plastic China captures a plaintive sense of the human casualties from unfettered global consumerism. His gently observed portrait of the families toiling at a plastic recycling factory in Shandong builds into a damning commentary on a modern China marked by extreme divides in wealth and opportunity. Wide festival exposure seems assured, particularly at events with a focus on environmental issues, and specialist distribution is a strong possibility. – Allan Hunter, Screen Daily Wang delicately balances the perspectives of Yi-Jie, her father, and Kun, alternating the child’s wonderment in and adaptability to her surroundings with the adults’ more grounded, and sad, apprehension of their present circumstances, revealing at the same time a sense of modern-day China coping with inequality in its rapidly developing economy. The film’s inclusion in this year’s environmentally-themed The New Climate underscores the global dimensions – and impact – of our disposable culture. – Basil Tsiokos, All Things Documentary

To say that Plastic China is an eye opener is an understatement. An look at a onetime farmer who now runs a plastic recycling plant and is just getting by the film is a glaring example of the gulf between the haves and have nots in modern day China. Plastic waste from all over the world is shipped to China where it is shred and then recycled. The tedious work of sorting all the refuse is done by poorly paid workers. Kun and his family does most of the work with the help of Peng who get paid a couple of dollars a day - which he promptly drinks leaving nothing for his own family to live on. – Steve Kopian, Unseen Films

“It is very important work, a milestone,” Ma Jun, the director of the Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs

“The incredible influx of waste into China also spawned entire towns devoted to recycling, where adults and children alike were often subjected to dangerous working conditions and exposed to toxic chemicals. One such community was spotlighted in Wang Jiuliang’s acclaimed documentary “Plastic China,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The film triggered a surge of public anger in China — and observers say the film, though scrubbed from the Chinese internet soon after its original release in 2014, may have played a part in forcing Beijing to rethink its role in the global waste industry.” -- Dominique Mosbergen, The Huffington Post 24 Jan 2018


Main credits

Wang, Jiuliang (film director)
Wang, Jiuliang (director of photography)
Chen, Ruby (film producer)

Other credits

Supervising editor, Jean Tsien; editor, Bob Lee; music, Tyler Strickland.

Distributor credits

Julie Chen

Wang Jiuliang

Director- Wang Jiuliang
Producer-Ruby Chen
Composer-Tyler Strickland

Docuseek subjects

Environmental Justice
Asian Studies
Anthropology and Archaeology
Recycling and Waste
Toxic Chemicals
Environmental Health
Toxic Waste
Communication and Media Studies
Working Conditions
Occupational Health and Safety
Environmental Science
Human Rights
Global / International Studies
Film and Video Studies
Family Issues
East Asia
Women's Studies

Distributor subjects

Asian Studies
Environmental Justice
Gender Studies
Global Issues
Health and Health Care
Occupational Health and Safety
Toxic Chemicals
Toxic Waste
United States
Youth and Family


WANG Jiu-Liang, plastic waste, recycling, Global Environmental Justice documentaries collection, childhood, toxic waste, Shandong Province, Sichuan Province, Kun, Peng, Yi-jie,; "Plastic China "; Global Environmental Justice

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