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 teacher's guide for Plastic China (PDF)

000 It's so hard to dig
001 Keep on digging
002 We're gonna build a house, and sleep in it tonight
003 Use these plastics for covering, we'll be warm
004 Use some plastic cover to make it look like a door
006 Tsingdao Harbor
007 China is the leading importer of plastic wastes from Japan, Korea, Europe, and USA.
008 Kun Factory owner
009 I make a living by recycling plastic
010 It's not bad for a farmer
011 I don't have other skills
012 only dirty works like this
013 so I can support my family
014 make more money, give them better lives
015 QiQi Kun's son
016 Peng from Sichuan Employee
017 It's broken
018 We've been here for four years
019 In my hometown, we live at the mercy of Mother Nature
020 I was diagnosed with arthritis
021 so I can't support my family
022 Working here is easier than staying at home
023 Yi Jie Peng's daughter
024 I don't like it here, I like Sichuan better
025 All my friends are there
026 My uncle and grandma are in Sichuan
027 My uncle misses me, I miss him too
028 Move
029 Put them in here
030 - Take care of him.  - OK.
031 Come here, Yi Qiu
032 I like this
033 and this
034 and...
035 ...this one
036 Scram
037 The stuff here is all imported
038 All kinds of things, so gross
039 Some plastics smell horrible
040 Also disgusting
041 See, I have balloons
042 My mom found them
043 Ah Zi Peng's son
044 Go pack the bags
045 Hurry up
046 Go pack
047 - Hurry - You scared me
048 Hurry up
049 What?
050 Go help your wife
051 This is why Peng left home and came here, just for money, right?
052 Come on, he has four kids
053 Look at him, always complaining about his salary
054 Just quit drinking...
055 and another baby on the way
056 The school only takes children who are around three years old
057 - How much is the tuition? - I don't know
058 Let me call them
059 We have no money to send QiQi to school
060 We have no money
061 All the money is put into the production
062 After the pellets are produced, then we could afford the tuition
063 Just wait for a little longer, let him stay at home for now
064 We need...
065 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 baskets
066 This is a flyer for students at school
067 QiQi will be like this when he goes to school
068 He will do this
069 He couldn't even count 1, 2, 3
070 Why bother go to school?
071 - You are wrong - I'm right
072 No
073 Yes
074 No
075 Yes
076 Yes
077 52  61
078 72  75
079 Total of 79 hours
080 You earned more than $240
081 About $6 per day
082 - Nothing left after food and drink - Then quit drinking
083 That's the purpose of making money
084 Drinking?
085 I can't eat anything without beer
086 Your kids couldn't even go to school
087 My salary is too low
088 Look at them
089 I take one step at a time
090 I'm like a bird
091 Flying aimlessly, searching for food
092 There is nothing I can do
093 I've never gone to school either,
094 I couldn't care if she goes to school or not
095 They'll go after we return home next year. Education is free in our village
096 - Want to speak to grandma? - Sure
097 Is your Dad working?
098 Yeah, he is sorting the plastic
099 - Will you help him? - Yeah
100 - Really? - Yep
101 - Do you know how to sort plastic? - Yes, I do
102 But you have to take care of the baby
103 Will you be back soon?
104 In two months
105 Talk to you later...
106 How are you, grandma?
107 I'm good
108 I heard you are coming back, I'm so happy
109 In my hometown, we have everything
110 There are horses, goats, and cow
111 chicken and ducks
112 pigs
113 and baby pigs
114 There are apples, oranges, and grapes
115 We pick our own grapes and eat them
116 I want to go to school
117 But my dad wouldn't let me, because we don't have money
118 QiQi, where is this place?
119 Where is this place?
120 You all shush
121 This is water
122 - The United States. - The United States?
123 The United States
124 American people are cooling themselves in the ocean
125 You have no idea
126 They cover themselves with blanket
127 They have solar water heater at home
128 We've got the sun too
129 Let me see
130 Oh no
131 The electricity bill is going up
132 This month's electricity is about $800
133 Because the electricity price is so high
134 plus all kinds of taxes from the state
135 The profit is very low
136 We have about 5,000 plastic recycling shops in this town
137 Paying a lot of the taxes to the country
138 Sheep start to lose weight, 'cause they eat plastics
139 After the butcher opened them up,
140 their stomachs are full of plastic
141 Check out all the goodies
142 Glasses! Look, glasses!
143 Look, I've found three Mickeys
144 Sis, there is another one...
145 Sis, here you are
146 Here is a plate
147 Look at this corn
148 The sun rises, Chairman Mao is dearest
149 You opened up the golden road
150 Forever Chairman Mao
151 Your brilliant ideology is always inspiring me
152 You dispersed the clouds and fogs
153 Follows Chairman Mao
154 Great! Awesome!
155 Bravo!
156 Chairman Mao
157 Do you know who he is?
158 Chairman what?
159 Do you know who is Chairman Mao?
160 I'm gonna take you to visit Beijing, OK?
161 My Mom always wants to go to Chairman Mao's Memorial Hall
162 and cry for Chairman Mao
163 Then, let's go
164 Yi Jie. The basin, I need a basin
165 For what?
166 Let's go fishing
167 They are dead
168 This one is still alive
169 - Were they floating like this in the river? - Yeah
170 Look at them
171 Look, he's dancing
172 Keep dancing, Yi Qiu
173 Haha, he's dancing
174 We found a treasure
175 See
176 It came in this package
177 Check it out. Gosh, imported from Europe
178 I'll try it later tonight
179 Is it expired?
180 It doesn't matter
181 Hello, my child is turning four
182 How much is the tuition at your school?
183 $65 per month?
184 Peng
185 I'm sending QiQi to school tomorrow. What about your kids?
186 Even just for two months, think about it
187 Forget it
188 The teachers will take care of them
189 They will go to school in our hometown
190 Prilling today
191 - In the afternoon? - Yes now
192 Sis, cotton candy for you
193 Get away from me
194 Take this cotton candy
195 Is this all the money we have?
196 Money, money, when can we have more money?
197 This pile, that pile, pile as high as we can
198 Let me see
199 - What is that? - Some picture cards
200 Picture, you see
201 Let me teach you. This means the sixth month, June
202 June
203 Summer
204 Summer
205 sa sa sa
206 Father's day
207 Father means Dad
208 fa
209 fa
210 Father
211 Father
212 This is school
213 It means go to school
214 She is a fast learner
215 I'll put it here for now
216 - Let me teach you - Keep them for QiQi
217 QiQi doesn't need them
218 I'm sending him to school tomorrow
219 Do you want to go to school?
220 No
221 No
222 No?
223 Why not?
224 Did your Dad told you not to?
225 No, because I need to take care of my brothers
226 - You like taking care of kids? - Yes
227 Are you serious?
228 I don't believe you
229 - Do you want to go to school or not? - No
230 Kid, if you don't go to school, you have no future
231 You will become an illiterate
232 If you agree, I can adopt you
233 I can arrange you to go to school here
234 buy you new clothes
235 You won't have any of these, if you go back to Sichuan
236 Your Dad wouldn't let you go to school
237 Stay here with my family
238 How about that?
239 She's healthy
240 A girl
241 Yi Jie, you have a little sister now
242 Let me see
243 let me see
244 Take her to your house
245 Turn on the fan
246 Stay here
247 Be careful
248 Slowly...
249 Let me take you home
250 This is called "big" and this is called "little"
251 Repeat after me.
252 What's your little sister's name?
253 - Your Dad hasn't got her a name yet? - Yes, he has
254 - Your name is Yi Jie, right? - Yes. Yi Zu is the baby's name
255 Sounds strange
256 You just don't understand Sichuan dialect
257 It sounds nice in Sichuan dialect
258 Let's go to cook for Mom
259 - Yi Jie - Yes?
260 Stay in Shandong and find a husband here
261 Don't go home
262 No, I want to go back home
263 I'm going to cook now
264 - Mom - Yes?
265 Go wash your clothes
266 I want to go to school
267 You are going to school tomorrow, now go wash your clothes
268 See how dirty it is
269 You are a big boy now, learn to wash your own clothes
270 Hey, what's this?
271 Okay
272 This is a computer
273 It's very well made
274 Slow down
275 I am responsible for the weight
276 You can count on it. Trust me
277 You can give me a hard time, I'm a nice guy
278 He only pay me $5 a day, It's like nothing
279 It's not even enough for a grocery shopping
280 How come the quality so bad?
281 It looks good
282 Please just take it, we can talk about the price
283 Okay?
284 I will lose $2,222
285 Damn it
286 What a good job I have
287 $5 a day. That's almost nothing
288 Fine, you're the boss. But your mother is too harsh on me
289 Why didn't you sort carefully? You are responsible for it
290 You are wasting my plastic
291 You guys are just...
292 You son of a bitch!
293 Who do you think you are?!
294 Stop it
295 What the hell did you say? You bastard
296 I'll shit in your mouth
297 What?
298 Stop it
299 Peng, go take a walk
300 F*ck off! Don't ever come back
301 How dare you!
302 Don't you have any heart?
303 You actually slap on my face
304 I have been working here for almost 4 years
305 Two years ago
306 I worked 10 hours straight in a freezing winter
307 This arm is still suffering from that frostbite
308 There might be inflammation in here
309 During winter, I sit by the machine for 10 hours without moving
310 Here, come to Big Sister.
311 It's Okay, It's Okay
312 Good boy
313 It's dirty, tiring, and not making much money
314 Then why do you do it?
315 To make a living
316 I have no choice
317 For my kids, for my parents
318 I'm just a farmer. I don't have other skills
319 If I don't do this, how can I make money?
320 Mom, I'm full
321 Good boy
322 Prilling tonight at 11pm
323 Tomorrow, I'm gonna sell all the products I have
324 About $1,000 or $1,200, enough for QiQi's tuition
325 Education comes first
326 See, I can afford your tuition. What about your friends?
327 Why can't Ah Zi go to school?
328 Because his Dad couldn't afford it, right?
329 We are going that way
330 Okay
331 Come on
332 This way
333 Throw it away, buy a new one
334 Mom, check it out
335 You know nothing about the sedan
336 It looks the same as our neighbor's car
337 Oh please, that's a piece of crap.
338 This one looks better
339 Awesome!
340 Beautiful, isn't it?
341 So we take this one?
342 We can't afford it
343 Go for a car loan, then
344 In that case, you'd have to pay interest
345 It's priced at $13,000, and the down payment is $6,500
346 Then we just need to pay the other half in three years
347 All we need is $6,500 down payment
348 Keep your crappy van until you can afford a new one
349 Damn plastics! My body is broken
350 Why don't you go to the hospital?
351 Three tumors, here is a big one
352 Feel this, it's hard
353 Yi Jie, I'm going to pick QiQi up from school
354 You coming with me?
355 - OK - Really?
356 Let's go
357 Don't you have any work to do?
358 You're not going anywhere
359 Your Dad doesn't let you go?
360 You're not going anywhere
361 Don't listen to your Dad
362 - I'm not going - Come with me
363 Don't even think about it
364 You son of a bitch
365 I'm the great sage...
366 Yi Jie should go and see how good school is
367 Don't listen to your Dad
368 Let's go
369 Don't go
370 My Dad doesn't...
371 I'm the boss, let's go
372 Is this your daughter or mine?
373 I found something
374 Here, check it out
375 I'm poor but I have ambition
376 My kids are all smart and beloved, even though we are poor
377 The missing part is education
378 There is nothing I can do
379 Cabbage
380 Yes cabbage, you are adorable
381 This is pronounced "pump",  this is "kin"
382 Bees
383 Ants! What bees
384 These are obviously ants
385 Look, they have wings
386 Go ask somebody
387 It is an ant
388 You see
389 Did you take this dictionary from my house?
390 No
391 If you memorized everything in this dictionary, you could get into collage
392 If you memorized everything in this dictionary,
393 you will be better than the camera guy
394 What are you doing? I'm writing here
395 Writing what?
396 These
397 You try it
398 Don't move
399 Oh, meat!
400 Here are something you need to...
401 It means "You should know something"
402 I would know these English words, if I had gotten into college
403 Car price is much cheaper abroad
404 This Audi is...
405 Audi.
406 See, it says "Don't miss, call now."
407 Is this looks good?
408 Fine, it's great
409 Boy, auto show
410 Let's go and check it out
411 We're just going to browse
412 to know what's out there
413 And then I'll have the motivation to earn more money
414 Let's go.
415 Touch it
416 - $71,500  -  That equals several years' income
417 It'll take us 10 years to earn $80,000
418 This feels really good
419 Hop on. Sit in here for a moment
420 Touch it and feel it
421 We can't afford it now. But who's to say we can never afford it?
422 Hurry
423 Almost
424 Auto show
425 Another one
426 This song
427 Done
428 $2 for this
429 Could I apply for a car loan?
430 I'm gonna buy this to show off in our village
431 Last year when we attended my younger sister's wedding,
432 I found even the poorest man in our village owns a car
433 You really like this one?
434 Bad choice, totally a garbage
435 QiQi's father wants to buy an ugly car
436 Look, this one
437 Which one?
438 So ugly
439 Buying a car? He is bluffing
440 He is out of his mind
441 Don't let him hear you
442 He is out of his mind
443 I don't dare to go to the doctors
444 what if there is something...
445 something bad
446 I'm still young, not even 30 yet
447 If there is something serious,
448 what about my family
449 That's why I don't want to go
450 What if there is something bad...
451 You should go to hospital, what if there is nothing
452 Mind your own business
453 or go cook for us
454 Just go check
455 Come on!
456 The dark sky is falling
457 The shining stars are following
458 Okay
459 Ah Zi
460 Dad, when are we going home?
461 Tomorrow
462 Wow! I'm going to school
463 We are going back
464 I'm really sick of here
465 - Pack your clothes - Okay
466 Do you believe it?
467 You don't?
468 What about you?
469 I do
470 I do want to go to school in my hometown
471 When I graduate, I'll take a photo for my ID
472 And then I'll come back to find a job
473 I'll make my own money
474 Then I'll have money to get a wife
475 Liar!
476 Dad told me that
477 Right, uncle?
478 I swear! Both of us!
479 Absolutely true
480 Let me tell you a secret
481 I think my Dad...
482 Don't tell Ah Zi
483 What did you say?
484 I believe in my Dad
485 Dame it
486 Spend it all
487 How much money have we left?
488 $50
489 It's okay. I'll sell our production tomorrow
490 Boss just got rid of his old van
491 All he does is work to afford fancy stuff
492 Look how gorgeous this is
493 What a car!
494 A red car
495 - Is it good?  - Very nice
496 Dad got it for you
497 QiQi we are going home tomorrow
498 We are going back to Sichuan,
499 to live with our grandmother
500 QiQi, sorry we can't hang out with you anymore
501 We're going back home, and we'll go to school
502 We can't play with you anymore
503 We are going back to see grandma
504 No?
505 How about I let Ah Zi stays here?
506 What?
507 Come on, sis
508 Oh that's mine
509 I found it there
510 That's for Yi Qiu
511 Bullshit
512 The Railway Station
513 Dear passengers, before boarding
514 please have tickets and ID cards ready
515 Where are you going?
516 Home. Sichuan.
517 Show me your ticket and your ID
518 Could I buy tickets without an ID?
519 No
520 ID is required to buy tickets
521 The Long-distance Bus Station
522 Where are you going?
523 To Chengdu. How much for a ticket?
524 $85
525 What about the kids?
526 This one needs an adult ticket
527 - Really?  - Yes
528 If you take the bus leaving at 1pm...
529 Excuse me
530 When do you want to leave?
531 Uh, never mind. I think the money...
532 I'm a little low on cash now
533 Come back anytime then
534 OK
535 I'm just checking in advance
536 I don't have enough cash for the tickets
537 Thank you
538 When I get this pile sorted out, I'll make a half dollar
539 Then I'll have money to buy toys, cars,
540 and marry someone
541 I want a train ticket
542 Where to?
543 Beijing
544 Money please
545 I don't have any money
546 Here you are, lots of money
547 The slogan say...
548 all the people will have a well-off life
549 A life that we could earn enough and live comfortably
550 This is Beijing
551 skyscrapers
552 fancy cars
553 Beijing
554 Right, Beijing
555 This is the place where rich people live
556 Do you like your lunch today?
557 Tell me,
558 do you like your lunch today?
559 It's great
560 Great?
561 Because we spent a lot of money, right?
562 Right
563 How to make a lot of money?
564 You need to study hard, right?
565 Only by studying hard?
566 Yes, study hard when you grow up...
567 Then we can live in Beijing
568 Okay
569 Study hard, come to Beijing for college
570 Then buy a car and an apartment in Beijing
571 Then we will live rich people's lives
572 What do you think?
573 I'm going out to work at 13 years old
574 The income are for my brothers and sister
575 To support Yi Duo and Yi Qiu to go to school
576 I don't care about Ah Zi.
577 I'm small but mighty
578 Very strong
579 Dad, could you put the SIM card in the cell phone?
580 My hands are frozen
581 They are dead
582 Look, this is what the SIM was in
583 Can you read it?
584 I can't
585 Go ask the boss
586 Boss, do you know these words?
587 What?
588 Do you?
589 Let me see
590 Something in China?
591 That's "Welcome in China"
592 Oh, yes.
593 Welcome in China
594 Dumping
595 Look, a big truck
596 It's dumping trash
597 Put out the fire!
598 Hurry up
599 Hurry up
600 Take this
601 Put it out
602 Try this one.
603 I got it.
604 It's out
605 It's still burning over there

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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

Docuseek2 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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