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Plastic China

View on The Global Environmental Justice site

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.



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