Beijing Besieged By Waste

Time Out talks to the man uncovering the truth about China's waste

In 2008 photojournalist Wang Jiuliang started visiting landfills around Beijing, eventually travelling over 20,000km to reach almost 500 dumps. As Time Out screens his new documentary in Shanghai, Nicola Davison talks to the man uncovering the truth about China’s waste

What led you to start photographing the landfills around Beijing? I went back to my hometown [Anqiu, Shangdong province] in August of 2008 to take pictures and saw changes: there was a lot of discarded packaging scattered in the fields. I remember my hometown as a very beautiful place, but in the village consumerism was beginning to take root. If something close to your heart is damaged, you sit up and take notice.

What did you find in the landfills? You don’t realise, because you usually encounter waste in a bin at home, but when you’re at a landfill the amount of rubbish is just massive. Your senses are overwhelmed; you can’t stand five minutes of it. It feels dangerous. Finding sludge from untreated sewage was something that really shocked me – it’s very harmful to the environment. It’s about profit. Sewage companies don’t want to pay to have this stuff treated, so they dump it. It’s everywhere in the landfills. It’s very common, but people turn a blind eye to it.

You encounter ‘scavengers’ who make their livelihoods off the trash. There are scavengers who are considered part of the lowest strata of society. They live off the trash. They have very tough lives and get by with very low income. I feel that they talkdeserve respect because they are the people who are truly carrying out the bulk of the sorting and recycling efforts in China. Without them, the cities would be submerged in trash.

In your film you make the claim that China is a dumping ground for the world’s rubbish. I visited a waste sorting and disposal plant in the States [in Oakland], which is said to be one of the largest in the country. While I was there, the manager pointed to a box of waste and said ‘this belongs to China’. After the trash is sent to Oakland and mechanically sorted, it goes on a boat to China. In June this year, when I was in Hebei for research – they have one of the largest plastics recycling clusters in China – I saw a car license plate from Ireland.

What is the public’s attitude towards waste? The media doesn’t report it. People have no idea how much rubbish is being generated every day, where the rubbish is going, what hazards it poses. You don’t see landfills marked on road signs, even though these places are so closely linked to us. My job is to bring people to the landfills through my photographs, to show them what the situation is.

What’s the cause of the waste crisis? One part of the issue is the government’s handling of waste disposal, and another is the ignorance of the public. But the underlying reason is consumerism. The rubbish that reaches the landfills largely relates to our consumerist lifestyles – lots of brands and their product packaging: Yoshinoya fast food boxes, snack packets, Tetra Paks, things like that. We live a fast-paced consumerist lifestyle but aren’t prepared for the problems it causes.

What interference have you had from authorities? I discovered a group of people who manage illegal landfills. They take a piece of land in a remote area, collect trash then sort it on their own, selling what they find of value for profit. Then they illegally dispose of the unwanted remainder. If you go there and take pictures or film them, they threaten to hurt you. This happened to me frequently. They’re a huge contributor to the trash problem because they interfere with the proper process of waste disposal. Actually the government should consider giving them a legal status and certain operating guidelines. They would love to cooperate with the government. I haven’t had problems from anyone else. In fact, after my photos became widespread in China, the government started to take note of the issue. The waste disposal authority in Beijing responded: as of April this year, they pledged ten billion RMB to the management of landfills.

Does a similar situation exist in Shanghai? I have yet to go to Shanghai so I can’t really comment. But these large landfills can be found in every city. Shanghai is such a large city that the rubbish it generates is definitely substantial. In fact, the amount of rubbish generated by Shanghai is probably higher than Beijing’s.

What can an individual do? Of course, I don’t advocate completely restricting yourself from everything. All of us are complicit in this huge consumerist culture that we’re simply unable to break out of. We shouldn’t stop buying things but start looking at what we are buying – we can consciously seek the truth behind things, from how something is made to how it’s disposed. A flight from Shanghai to Beijing is a little over an hour. In the first class cabin, you’re given a pair of disposable slippers. Their lifespan will be that single hour. You can choose whether or not to wear them.

Additional reporting by Amelia Hong

Time Out
presents a free screening of Beijing Besieged By Waste at Lola on Thursday 17. See event details here