Filmmaker behind Beijing waste exposé turns attention to trash trade

Wang Jiuliang's expose on Beijing's dumping grounds caught the attention of powerful people, but his battle against waste is far from over, writes Andrea Chen

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 1:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 January, 2014, 1:06pm

As the snarl of a garbage truck disrupts the quiet of an enormous expanse of waste, scavengers follow the noise to the site and rummage through the trash for recyclable material. Then goatherds move in, allowing their goats to graze for food scraps amid the plastic fragments and construction waste.

The opening shot of photographer Wang Jiuliang's award-winning 2011 documentary, Beijing Besieged by Waste, pans over an illegal site, one of 460 rubbish dumps that he visited during an investigation into the Chinese capital's disposal network. Its disturbing images have pricked consciences about the environmental costs of the country's breakneck development whenever it was screened. Each time, audiences have invariably asked one question: what happened to the illegal sites following his exposé?

Villagers told me [they feared] that the ground water has been contaminated

"Since I revisited most of the sites during 2011-2012 … I can assure you that 80 per cent of the illegal sites have been closed or turned into sanitary landfills by the authorities," says Wang, who was at a screening of his film last month at the Asia Society's Hong Kong centre.

However, the question most often raised misses the key issue he hopes to address in his documentary.

"Who produces the waste and how can we reduce it? I made the documentary to show the audience my answers," says Wang. "It is consumerism. It is us."

According to Beijing municipal authorities, more than 6.48 million tonnes of solid waste went into the capital's 15 authorised landfills in 2012. This worked out at an average of 17,753 tonnes - enough to fill five Olympic-size swimming pools - every day. And that's not including the material that was going into illegal dumps.

It took Wang four years, from 2008 to 2011, to track down where the waste in Beijing went. Municipal authorities and public records offered no information, so he started by tracking the tricycle which collected refuse from his residential community, following it to a landfill where the waste was dumped. He noted its co-ordinates on Google Earth, identified the location of others through similar satellite images, and rode his motorcycle more than 17,000 kilometres across the city to visit all the dumps.

Recalling his first encounter with a 40-hectare landfill just five kilometres away from his apartment in eastern Chaoyang district, Wang says: "When I was one kilometre away from the landfill, I could already smell it. The stench was beyond description, like spoiled food melting into a methane tank."

By the time he felt too ill to go any further, Wang realised that he had ridden through a residential area. "I've encountered many people living next to dump sites, which means they have to endure the smell every single day," he says.

A college student living in a dormitory near a dump site in Tongzhou district told Wang that he had not opened his windows in four years. A farmer, whose fields lay just a few hundred metres from another dump, showed him rows of vegetables buzzing with flies.

At informal sites, the impact is even worse because leachate - the liquid of dissolved substances that seeps through waste material - will contaminate the soil, as well as ground and surface water, says Jonathan Wong Woon-chung, a Baptist University professor specialising in waste management.

"When contaminated soil and water is used to grow crops, the crops will be contaminated and the pollutants will keep accumulating in the food chain," says Wong.

As an example, he cites tests recently conducted on rice sold in Hong Kong, which found samples of grain imported from the mainland contained cadmium, a toxic heavy metal. "It could be a result of leachate from [an] open dump."

According to Wang, most waste from the inner city winds up in illegal sites because property management companies don't want to pay fees charged by government-owned corporations that operate sanitary landfills. Instead, they sell the waste to private firms, who hire workers to pick out the recyclable material before dumping the remainder, usually in an open field or along river banks.

Wang was surprised to find during his exploration of the Wenyu River, a major waterway running through Beijing, that it had stinking water, was surrounded by illegal dump sites and was a dumping ground for sludge shipped from waste-water treatment plants.

"Beijing is now like a dirty dish cloth. All the clean water flowing into the city gets polluted when it flows out," he says.

The disturbing images, especially one showing goats grazing on a dump site, triggered a public outcry in Beijing when the first of Wang's photographs were exhibited in 2009. The local authority rushed to shut down some of the sites, in some instances covering them up with soil, when they realised that the illegal dump site in Tongzhou district had made headlines across the country.

In an unexpected turn of events, Xinhua invited Wang to work with them on an internal party report on the city's waste disposal, which was later read closely by former Premier Wen Jiabao. According to Wang, Wen issued directives to the municipal government, calling for immediate action to tackle the illegal dump sites.

By the end of 2011, most of the illegal sites featured in his documentary had been turned into urban green spaces or sanitary landfills. The waste from previous decades was excavated, recyclable materials extracted and the remainder sent to legal landfills.

Even so, according to Xinhua, more than half of Beijing's legal landfills are reaching capacity, and will have to close in two years.

Last year, the city launched a three-year reform plan, involving new incinerators that will process 70 per cent of waste, and a huge increase fees to dispose of non-household waste from 25 yuan (HK$30) per tonne to 300 yuan.

But Wang believes that the plan will not alleviate the capital's waste-disposal woes.

"We have not seen any policies addressing the source of the waste problem," he says.

"The impact of consumption is evident when you see these fields of plastic waste. When you buy pork in a supermarket, for instance, you are also using plastic containers and plastic wrap, unlike the old days when pork was wrapped in newspaper."

And for all the encouragement he has received from people who have seen his documentary, Wang is increasingly convinced that education and moral arguments are not enough to significantly reduce consumption and waste.

"It's like dancing with shackles on. How can we control people's desire for a better and more convenient life? And an individual's effort is nothing compared to the total amount of waste dumped into the landfills."

Beyond asking people to buy less, Wang believes it would be more effective if the authorities imposed environmental charges or taxes that will force manufacturers to change the way in which they produce their products.

"Producers of instant coffee, for instance, will then choose to use glass bottles instead of small plastic packets to reduce the cost. Of course it will compromise our convenience. But isn't it convenience that produces the plastic waste?"

Wang is working with a film distributor to release his documentary online so that it can reach more viewers.

Over the past two years, he has also broadened the scope of his investigations to include the country's trade in trash. In 2011, China imported eight million tonnes of plastic waste. Wang plans to release his second film in August, to show audiences the disturbing reality of a country besieged by waste from around the world.

"China has long been the largest dump site of developed countries' waste - discarded electrical and electronic equipment, construction waste and, most dangerous of all, plastics," says Wang. "All Chinese know Japan does very well at sorting its rubbish. What they do not know is most of our neighbouring countries' plastic waste ends up in China."

Although both countries have set up strict rules regulating waste-processing facilities, he has filmed many family-style recycling workshops that operate without treating the highly polluted waste water that they generate.

"Villagers told me they had to buy drinking water from neighbouring communities, fearing that the ground water has been contaminated with dioxin [a carcinogen]."

But local authorities have largely turned a blind eye to such activities, Wang says. For each tonne of plastic waste, an importer must pay from 2,300 yuan to 3,300 yuan in duties. Waste processing plants also charge 6,000 yuan for waste-water management each year.

"A tonne of waste plastic costing US$50 in its home country may be worth as much as 6,000 yuan after it is bought by Chinese family factories, which make only a few hundred [yuan] a day."