Global plastic waste has turned cities in China from natural wonders into chasms of poverty and sickness.
In 2010, author and Shanghai correspondent Adam Minter went undercover to explore the inner workings of the plastic business in China, and he discovered the frightening realities of recycling plastic scraps. Minter visited Wen’an, a Chinese city that has become a global hub of the scrap plastic trade, to see the effects of the recycling industry.
According to locals, Wen’an was once well known for its beautiful landscape and the natural bounty that came from the streams, peach trees and fertile soil. However, the lush nature of Wen’an quickly disappeared when its citizens began to realize that there was money to be made in the plastic recycling business.
By 2006, one third of the 60,000 Chinese Plastics Processing Association’s workshops were located in Wen’an.
When Minter traveled to Wen’an he noticed that the streets are “bustling, crowded and incomprehensibly dirty.” What used to be a green paradise is now a dead zone where children play in dried puddles of melted plastic instead of on the grass. The common health problems of the citizens of Wen’an have shifted from poverty related ailments to still more dangerous conditions caused by pollution.
Before the plastic waste factories sprung up across China, people suffered from stomach problems and diarrhea due to a lack of nutrition and clean water. These sicknesses disappeared when cities could pay to dig wells for uncontaminated water. However, the money for these wells came from plastic factories that polluted the streets, air and laborers’ lungs.
“Since the ’80s, high blood pressure has exploded,” a doctor from Wen’an warned. “In the past nobody had it. Now 40 percent of the adults in this village have it. People have it in their 30s so badly that they can’t move anymore. They’re paralyzed.”
In addition to the environmental impact, the economic reality in the region is grim. Although the plastic industry brought employment to the citizens of Wen’an, the wages are pitiful and the working conditions are astonishingly poor.
During his undercover visit to a plastic factory, Minter noticed that although the owner was well fed and sharply dressed, his employees are “scrawny and bug eyed.” Men breathe in melted plastic fumes from the machinery, while teenage boys work shirtless under the sun, picking rubbish from shredded piles of plastic.
Since Minter’s visit to Wen’an in 2010, the Chinese government imposed new regulations and shut down the scrap plastic trade in parts of the country. Despite the modest improvements, the Bureau of International Recycling estimates that the global plastic scrap trade will grow from the 15 million tons consumed in 2007 to about 45 million tons by 2014.
Although the scrap plastic trade creates employment in cities like Wen’an, it is disheartening to watch the disintegration, not only of the wellbeing of the workers, but also the natural beauty of nations worldwide.
– Grace Flaherty