From Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, by Adam Minter. Bloomsbury Press, November 2013.
A city of twenty million people generates a lot of trash. Some of it ends up in landfills, and some of it ends up being recycled. Beijing, a developing city of at least 20 million, recycles more than most, in large part because it's home to millions of migrant laborers, many tens of thousands of whom make a living by buying and sorting the value from what their upwardly mobile neighbors throw away.
The migrant peddlers aren't hard to miss. They ride tricycles retrofitted with trailers filled with what most Beijingers consider junk: newspapers, plastic bottles, bits of wire, boxes, and old appliances like televisions. Sometimes they stop at garbage cans to dig for what might have been thrown away; more often they take house calls from building guards who notify them of a resident up in a high-rise with a big cardboard box that held a new HD television, and some beer bottles to sell.
Over the years, a handful of Chinese academics have attempted to quantify how much trash and recycling Beijing generates on an annual basis; they've failed, roundly. The business is so big and yet so lacking in organization (it's largely conducted by migrants who don't pay taxes, and prefer to remain anonymous) that it's impossible to add up. Nonetheless, it is possible to figure out where most of it goes.
Enter my friend Josh Goldstein, a professor of contemporary Chinese history at the University of Southern California.
Ten years ago, while sitting in a Beijing library, boning up on Peking opera, he noticed scrap peddlers walking past his window carrying all manner of waste and recyclables. "So one afternoon I just decided to get up and follow them," he told me. "And I ended up at this massive recycling market. I started working on the subject from there." Along the way, he traced out the history of how Beijing recycles, and managed to locate the factory responsible for recycling all of the plastic cups that KFC generates in the city.
Josh is smart, sharp-tongued, and adventurous. In mid-June 2010, one of his connections offered him the chance to see what was being described as "the place where Beijing's plastics go." He agreed right away and called me up shortly thereafter. "Wanna come? Not sure what we'll see, but it's worth a shot, I think. I have some people who can take us around."
The place is called Wen'an County.
I didn't hesitate.
In Beijing we catch an early-morning minibus south out of the city via two-lane roads that skirt the tollways. Two hours later we're dumped at a rural gas station wedged into a dusty crossroads. The crossfire truck traffic that travels through it is deafening, and the exhaust it kicks up is stifling. Some of the trucks pull empty trailers, some carry drywall for construction projects. But most are loaded with scrap plastics: auto bumpers, plastic cartons, and giant ugly bales of mixed plastics ranging from shopping bags to detergent bottles, Folger's coffee cans to food wrappers. Few American recycling companies will accept this last category—at least, they wouldn't in 2010—but many American recyclers place them into their recycling bins anyway, and some recyclers, who'd rather sell them than pay to landfill them, offer them to scrap brokers with customers in China.
Still, all of that household recycling comes as a bit of a surprise: Josh had mentioned to me that Wen'an County imports plastics from abroad, as well as Beijing, but I wasn't expecting to see what basically amounts to my mom's trash riding through town. But in retrospect, that was just my scrap-metal-centric shortsightedness getting the better of me. If my travels in global recycling have taught me anything, it's that somebody in the developing world can usually find a use for what Americans can't recycle profitably.
According to the China Plastics Processing Association, in 2006 China was home to roughly 60,000 small-scale family-owned workshops devoted to recycling plastic, according to the most recent statistics, good or bad, that my government sources will give me. Of those, 20,000 are concentrated here, in Wen'an County. In other words: Wen'an County isn't just the heart of northern China's scrap-plastics industry; it is the Chinese scrap-plastics industry. And because China is the world's largest scrap-plastics importer and processor, I think it's fair to say that Wen'an County is at the heart of the global scrap-plastics trade.
I glance at Josh: he's lanky, with a full black beard and a backpack that makes him look like he's arrived here via Lonely Planet. He's traveled widely in China, speaks the language, and knows what he likes. And he doesn't like this gas station. Fortunately, our connecting minibus arrives, and we're on our way.
Before long, the single-lane road is overcome with dust and garbage. Traffic is choking with trucks weighed down by refrigerator-size bales of imported old plastic; on both sides of the road single-story one-room workshops are bathed in a swirl of dust. I note that the shops are covered in brightly colored signs advertising the two- and three-letter abbreviations for the various grades of plastics bought, sold and processed in the county: PP, PE, ABS, PVC. Polypropylene. Polyethylene. Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene. Polyvinyl chloride. Those letters all look so exotic, so distant and industrial. But they're not: they are the formulas that make up the plastics that encase my phone, my coffee, my laundry detergent bottle. This is the stuff that my friends and family dump in their recycling bins.
As I watch out the window, it looks to me as if nobody in Wen'an landscapes their storefronts. A few businesses might leave out piles of old taillights and bumpers, in case there's no room in their warehouses, but most use their storefronts to dry piles of wet, shredded plastic. It's a bustling, crowded, and incomprehensibly dirty main street, crossed by the occasional stray dog, partly blocked by a broken-down truck, and frequently scarred by black spots where—I'm later told—unrecyclable plastics were burned in the night. Above me, plastic bags are captured by the wind, floating on the breeze. But what I find most striking about Wen'an is this: there's nothing green. It's a dead zone.
As we drive, I look through an open door and see shirtless workers feeding red automobile taillights into machines that chop them up into fingernail-size flakes. Through other doorways, I see the air shimmer with hot fumes. "This is really it," Josh sighs as he gazes out the window. "What a fucking shit hole."
Our first stop is our hotel, and suites as large as parking lots, outfitted with beds the size of tractors, and covered in carpet the depth of an American lawn. I don't know downtown Wen'an, but I know enough about China to recognize this as the kind of place where public officials go when they can only get away from their wives for a few hours. For all of the dirt and garbage out front, this is a good reminder that somebody, somewhere, is making money in these parts. And yet, out my window, a woman is busy picking plastic bags from trash in a small brick courtyard. Beyond her is a series of red-roofed warehouses that gives way, eventually, to an under-construction twenty-story high-rise, rising like a single candle on a rotten birthday cake.
It wasn't always this way.
Twenty-five years ago, Wen'an was bucolic—an agricultural region renowned for its streams, peach trees, and simple, rolling landscape. The people who knew it then sigh when they recall the fragrant soil, the fishing, and the soft summer nights. Engage a local in conversation, and within minutes you'll hear how you should've come in the old days, back before the business of Wen'an was the business of recycling automobile bumpers, plastic bags, and bleach containers, back when the frogs and crickets were so loud they drowned out human conversation, back before the development of the plastics recycling trade plasticized the lungs of men in their twenties, way before multinational companies did business in Wen'an so they could say their products were "made from recycled plastics."
Then China started to develop, and a brisk and growing demand developed for the plastics that go into new buildings, cars, refrigerators, and all the stuff people buy. Most of those plastics were virgin, made from oil. But that was a temporary state of affairs: the stuff people bought became the stuff they threw away, and soon there were enough scrap plastics in China to justify going into business to recycle them—and thereby compete against the virgin plastics manufacturers.
As recently as fifteen years ago, Wen'an's waste plastics industry was devoted almost entirely to recycling plastics generated in China. But demand for plastics was growing rapidly both in China, and outside of it, and by 2000 China's plastics traders were looking for additional sources of scrap plastics. They found those plastics abroad.
Then, as now, few American, European, or Japanese scrap-plastics exporters have any idea who recycles the material that they export. Instead, they sell to brokers and other middlemen who sell to Chinese importers, often near ports, who then resell the scrap plastics to small traders of the sort who transport the plastics to Wen'an. Once the plastics arrive in Wen'an, they're sold again. By the time a bundle of US plastic detergent bottles is bought by the family that will actually separate and recycle it, it's all but impossible to trace it back to the American families who might have thrown those wrappers, bags, and bottles away.
It's a shadowy trade: unlike the multibillion-dollar trade in recyclable metals, plastics are traded in small lots. Indeed, for all of the commerce that happens in Wen'an, the 450 square miles of the county and its 450,000 residents (as of 2004) remain nearly unknown outside the immediate region and industry. The local government—and arguably, the environmental authorities in Beijing—surely prefers it that way.
But for all of the uncertainty, one thing is absolutely certain: foreigners aren't welcome unless they're here on business. And Josh and I definitely aren't in Wen'an on business. If not for a well-placed connection (of whom the less written, the better), we wouldn't be here at all.
It's late morning when Josh and I reconvene in one of the hotel restaurant's private dining rooms. We're joined by a local who will serve as our driver, and a representative of a local recycling company. Josh makes small talk, never once mentioning that I'm a journalist. If they knew, I'm not sure we'd be welcome to stay.
Our waitress—her name tag identifies her as #200—is a demure figure in a red skirt and a matching coat two sizes too big. For lack of other interviewees (for the moment), we ask whether she knows anything about the local plastics industry. "PP, PE, ABS," is her immediate reply, as if listing the day's lunch specials. "My family does the business." Intrigued, Josh asks just what percentage of the county is actually involved in the trade. "Find out the number of households," she replies. "And that will tell you the number of businesses. And if you don't have enough money to start your own business you go work for someone else's."
In Wen'an, we learn over lunch, it's possible to enter the recycling business for as little as $300—enough to buy a used shredder to chop up anything from taillights to plastic WD-40 containers, a tub to fill with caustic detergent to clean the chopped plastic, and a truckload of plastics to recycle. Environmental and safety equipment is neither required nor available at the local equipment and chemical dealers (we checked).
Our driver, hunched over a plate of unpeeled shrimp, looks up. "I used to be in the business, too. Now my daughter is married to a guy in the business. ABS, PP, PVC."
The waitress nods. "I have two brothers in the business. The money is much better than what I can earn waitressing."
Josh furrows his brow. "So why, then, aren't you in it?"
"It's unstable," she explains with a shrug. "And the health effects are bad. It's not like it used to be around here." Like others we'll encounter, she recounts the paradise that was, as others have recounted it to her—the peaches so sweet, they could sell as candy.
The precise details of how Wen'an was transformed into a global plastics recycling center are lost to history. Still, as we chat with the locals, it becomes clear that it was accidental rather than a grand plan. "Someone started doing it," explains one knowledgeable local who has worked in the industry for years. "He made money, so more people did it. The government saw it as a good source of tax revenue, and encouraged the industry. It was random."
Another successful business owner tells us that he started out in the mid-1980s, buying plastic bottle caps that nobody wanted and holding on to them until he could figure out a way to process them into reusable plastics (I possess a vivid, totally invented image of his wife glaring at garbage bags full of useless bottle caps, bought with the family's life savings). Eventually he did, and by 1988 he and other entrepreneurs in the area were opening small processing plants. With money on their minds, and increasingly flowing into their pockets, the town's leaders turned their backs on the obvious negative effects of becoming a place where other people dump their trash—even if that trash has value.
In fact, Wen'an was the perfect location for the scrap-plastics trade: it was close, but not too close, to Beijing and Tianjin, two massive metropolises with lots of consumers and lots of factories in need of cheap raw materials. Even better, its traditional industry—farming—was disappearing as the region's once-plentiful streams and wells were run dry by the region's rampant, unregulated oil industry. So land was plentiful, and so were laborers desperate for a wage to replace the money lost when their fields died. As I hear these stories, I can't help but wonder: How much of the plastic that Wen'an recycles was made from the oil pumped from Wen'an's soil? Are all those old plastic bags blowing down Wen'an's streets ghosts of the fuel that used to run beneath them?
After lunch Josh and I are driven out of central Wen'an to visit a plastics recycling factory with two representative of one of the county's biggest processors. Downtown's dust, grime, and billowing trash give way to gentle, rolling fields and the fruit tree groves for which Wen'an was celebrated. But only briefly: on the left is a fenced-in brown dirt yard piled with table-size bales of plastic scrap. Bags twirl and corkscrew into the hot summer breeze, catch flight, and tumble over fields until snagged in stiff, dead grasses. Behind the fence, two workers squat over a broken bale of plastic automobile bumpers, picking trash from its tight recesses, while another runs the bumpers through a shredder. The other garbage stuck to that bumper and bale is plastic, too, and it too will be segregated and recycled. In the United States, no recycling company could afford to pay somebody to do that, because the value of the plastics is too low. But even if it were profitable, there's another problem: the plastics that can be made from recycling wrappers and other cheap plastics don't meet the quality standards of US, European, or Japanese manufacturers. Only the Chinese, often manufacturers of last resort, will use that stuff.
As we bounce down the road, one of the company representatives tells us that most of Wen'an's plastics businesses are located in forty to fifty villages that spill across the rural, unconnected county. The small scrapyard behind us belongs to a village, one of the company men tells us; it's rumored to manufacture plastic bags from an ugly mix, including industrial-use plastics, which are then passed off as safe for food packaging. As the company men laugh at this, Josh looks at me—and then joins in, ruefully.
We cross a bridge over an algae-choked river into a tighter, dustier version of the streets of downtown Wen'an. Unlike those streets, however, these paths are crowded with groups of half-naked, often barefoot children who race and play among trucks piled with sheets of corrugated plastic boxes, old plastic barrels, and giant dried puddles of plastic that dripped onto factory floors, to be shoveled away into containers for export to China. They look like fossilized heaps of cow shit.
There aren't any markets, restaurants, or even equipment dealers in this village. It's all makeshift warehouses, fence posts covered in tree bark, and open spaces piled with bales of bumpers, piles of plastic barrels, and stacks of plastic crates. Our driver turns at a corner warehouse covered in graffiti phone numbers and stops at a small office building, next to a shiny black BMW. Despite all of the industry we saw on our way here, it's quiet in the village, almost as silent as wilderness. A distant mechanical buzz is no more obtrusive than a birdsong.
As we leave the car, we're greeted by a man I'll call Mr. Hu, a fiftyish owner of the plastics business we are here to visit. He wears a large Rolex with his gray work jumpsuit; in the factory, I notice his employees wear shorts and, occasionally, shirts. He's handsome and well-fed; they're scrawny and bug-eyed. Across the dirt street, employees have just started a small plastics shredder that they use to reduce plastic fruit baskets that Mr. Hu imported from Thailand, into flakes for recycling.
Mr. Hu tells us that he's been in the waste business for twenty years, but that this factory is only seven years old. He owns 90 percent of it, and "investors"—often a euphemism for the local government—own the other 10 percent. He leads us into an open courtyard where five employees—three of them shirtless teenage boys—pick trash from a load of unidentifiable, partly shredded bits of plastic imported from the United States. I ask what it was before shredding, and Mr. Hu shrugs. "Maybe boxes. Maybe something from cars."
As we watch, the shredded plastic is poured into metal tubs full of caustic cleaning fluid, and washed by turning metal strainers through the mix. Then it's spread out on tarps to dry. When the workers are done, the excess trash and cleaning fluid is gathered up, and either resold or tossed into a waste pit on the edge of town. Unless I'm missing something, or visiting on the wrong day, there's no safety equipment, no respirators, hard hats, or steel-toed boots, here; in fact, most of the workers—including Mr. Hu—wear sandals.
I look at Josh, and he looks back at me: this is bad.
"We only have one extruder running today," Mr. Hu tells us. "In here."
We walk into a brighter room, roughly forty feet long and perhaps half as wide. It smells of something modern and chemical. In the middle is a long device that runs perhaps half the room's length. At one end is a worker who pours boxes of shredded plastic flakes into a table-size funnel, where they're slowly melted. I can see the heat—and the melted plastic fumes—rising into his face. Meanwhile, the plastics drip into a ten-foot-long pipe, eventually emerging as fifteen pencil-thin gray noodles. The principle isn't much different from the one used in a pasta maker. The only difference is that the plastic noodles are cut into quarter-inch pellets and packed into bags for sale to manufacturers.
At Mr. Hu's factory, conditions are actually better than most factories in Wen'an—or so Mr. Hu claims. Yes, sure, a worker stands above the machine, inhaling the visible fumes that fill the room with a chemical choke. But according to Mr. Hu, the company has taken some tangible steps to improve the situation. "We used to pay the guy on the extruder more. But that was before we improved the ventilation." He nodded at the open bay doors and the open windows above the shop. Now he earns the same as the poor wretches who wash shredded plastics in chemicals without the benefit of gloves.
Mr. Hu invites us back to his office and offers a seat at a large wooden worktable. Behind us, his wife is working, and his son is playing computer games on a PC. As he pours tea, Mr. Hu tells us that among the customers for his recycled plastics are two companies on the Fortune Global 500 list—one of whom is also on Fortune's World's Most Admired Companies list. The other company awarded Mr. Hu's company a pass on its RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) evaluation, an industrial standard meant to require health, safety, and environmental compliance of contractors. To prove it, Mr. Hu produces the paperwork. As it happens, the phone in my pocket was made by one of the manufacturers named in that paperwork. I hold it up and ask: "Maybe the plastic came from here?"
"Maybe! Maybe so!"
Mr. Hu, too, has memories of Wen'an before the plastics. He grew up in Beijing, but because his mother was from Wen'an he often visited her family as a child. "I loved coming here," he says. "The earth itself was so fragrant. You could drink directly from the streams, and there were plenty of fish." He shakes his head with a sad smile.
"You can't put Humpty-Dumpty back together again," Josh whispers to me.
"What about the health effects of plastics recycling?" I ask.
Mr. Hu shakes his head. "You can't say precisely what the health effects are. But if you take a kid from a healthy environment and one from an environment filled with trash, the latter will be the one with problems." As I glance at his son, Mr. Hu adds that high blood pressure and other "blood diseases" are common in the area. But the biggest problem is the stress related to living in a "dirty, stinky, noisy environment. It takes a physical and mental toll." He reaches for my digital camera and holds it in his palm. "Is there a place to process and treat this when you're done with it? There's a law, sure. But if you ask somebody where to do it—no."
I'm not sure what, exactly, he's getting at. Perhaps he's suggesting that the pollution that's obvious all around us isn't really his fault. No doubt, a lack of government regulation played a role in the uncontrolled, unsafe expansion of Wen'an's recycling industry. But the decision to pollute, to ignore the safety of workers, ultimately rests with people like Mr. Hu. I glance at the Rolex on his wrist and the PC on which his son is playing video games. For the price of either, he could buy respirators to keep his employees safe from the plastic fumes that they're now inhaling. If he traded in his BMW for a Buick, the difference could fund work boots and jumpsuits, like his, to protect the entire village labor force from sharp edges, burns, and falling objects.
Josh purses his lips. "Do any of the business owners ever get into trouble for their activities in Wen'an?"
Mr. Hu shakes his head and explains that if a trader misrepresented his goods, he might get into trouble. But in his memory, the only health or safety violation that triggers government interest is when low-grade plastics are incorrectly marketed as safe for use with food. "Otherwise this [industry] is a good source of tax revenue. That's how they see it."
Wen'an has become modestly prosperous over the last two decades—at least at the upper end of the income scale. BMWs and Land Rovers are common on Wen'an's roads. But best as Josh and I can tell, that money has done little to improve the lives of the people who work in factories like Mr. Hu's. Wen'an's schools are so poor that families who can afford better—like Mr. Hu's—send their children out of the region at the first opportunity. Nobody wants to live in Wen'an—not even Mr. Hu. He has a home in Beijing, and that's where his wife lives most of the time, along with their son.
As the conversation begins to fade, Mr. Hu offers something unexpected: he asks if we'd like to see where he and the other village plastics business dump their waste.
Perhaps it's not nearly as bad as everything else around here? I can't imagine why else he'd offer, and Josh and I readily agree.
We leave town with the two company men in an SUV, driving down a muddy road interrupted by deep holes that look as if they'd been left in bombing runs. A quarter mile requires ten minutes; the landscape is dry and bleak. Then ahead of us I see rows of waist-high burial mounds. There are hundreds of them, dimples on the Chinese landscape, the final resting places of people who used to farm this region. It occurs to me that we're driving through a cemetery, not farm fields.
We turn right onto hard, cleared land that spreads out flat beside the mounds. Ahead of us are colorful streaks of plastic in the black dirt, traces of the plastics dumped into the giant pit spread out before me: it's at least two hundred yards long, a hundred yards across, and twenty feet deep. The dirt walls are streaked with trash, and its floor is filled with green and brown water swirled with colorful plastic bags. It is where, we are told, much of the village's plastic cleaning fluid and unusable waste is dumped when nothing else can be done with it. That goes for Mr. Hu's factory, too.
I look to my right, at the burial mounds, and notice that one of them has been severed in half and is slowly crumbling—bones and all—into the pit. The excavator that dug this pit cut cleanly through that grave as if it meant nothing to anyone, as if it were just dirt. It's shocking: in China, where reverence for the dead is among the deepest of cultural imperatives, that pit, literally etched into a cemetery, is a cultural transgression of the first order.
As we stare out at the canyon of trash and chemicals, Mr. Hu's employees go quiet. I don't know what they're thinking, but they don't look happy.
Josh glances in their direction and, with forced enthusiasm, repeats the Chinese Communist Party's canned response to whomever questions their commitment to the environment: "There's been a lot of economic progress out here," he says in Chinese. "Price of progress."
"Yeah," one mumbles, kicking at dirt that very well might have covered his ancestors.
Every morning, seven days per week, hours before dawn, trucks arrive on a wide, quarter-mile long side street that peels off downtown Wen'an's main street. It's a striking transition, even from the cluttered, dead grime that is Wen'an's main boulevard. Out to the horizon, tractor trailers and pickups are piled with a wild assortment of scrap plastics for sale to the small, temporary tables and stalls that sprout on the broken, burn-scarred cobblestone pavement. According to numerous market participants, roughly 70 percent of the scrap that arrives here every day is imported, driven from the ports overnight. The remaining material—usually the poorest quality compared to the nice stuff the less thrifty Americans and Europeans toss out—comes from nearby cities like Beijing.
The market is a wild place: pool tables are set up beside bags of brightly colored plastic pellets; traders play cards for loads of plastics that cost thousands of dollars. Children play between the trucks, the piles of plastics, the heaps of garbage, and the men seated on canvas bags of recently recycled plastics ready for sale to whomever is making something from plastic today. The action peaks around five in the morning as the overnight trucks arrive to unload, and dwindles to the lowest-grade materials, and the smaller dealers, by seven.
We arrive late—around six—but the upper section of the street is still dominated by a long flatbed piled ten feet high with tightly packed automobile bumpers, laundry detergent bottles, plastic washing machine gears, plumbing, defective factory parts, television cases, and heavy-duty plastic bags stuffed with plastic factory rejects from somewhere far away. Workers climb atop it and unload the pieces by hand, dropping parts and bags to the ground, where they're inspected and weighed by two portly men with notepads. As we watch, our driver tells Josh that there were 120 metric tons of plastic on the trailer (a wild exaggeration), and that he makes the trip three times per month from Harbin, a city roughly six hundred miles away.
We walk the length of the street, through dozens of salesmen, past a county-run scale that—the operator tells us—weighs a hundred loads of plastics per day. The cobblestones bake in the sun, covered in trash, melted plastics, and burn marks where unrecyclable—that is, unsalable—materials were dispatched in the night. Here and there, small-scale buyers cart around old plastic detergent containers dripping of their former contents; the pungent aroma of melting plastic wafts through an open gate. At the end of the street is a drainage ditch—perhaps once a creek—choked with garbage, a plastic mannequin head, and the remains of a green plastic bin with three circling arrows and the word recycling in English.
Wen'an is the most polluted place I've ever visited. I can't quantify it with data, because nobody has ever taken the data. But the scale of the pollution, covering much of the county's 450 square miles, is unmatched anywhere else I've been, in any other country on earth.
So what's to be done? Can't somebody in nearby Beijing shut it down?
Almost two years to the day after Josh and I visited Wen'an, I received an e-mail from him with some surprising news: Wen'an's new Communist Party secretary had ordered the total shutdown of the county's plastics recycling industry. Later press accounts claimed that 100,000 people were immediately left jobless, and countless thousands of small family businesses were rendered effectively bankrupt (both figures are believable). My initial response was a rush of jubilation: if anything needed to be shut down, it was Wen'an.
I really should have known better.
I flew up to Beijing a few weeks later and learned that—in the wake of the shutdown—the price of scrap plastics in the city had fallen by half. Peddlers who spent their days collecting plastic scrap suddenly had much less of a reason to do it. Warehouses where plastics used to be sold before being transferred to Wen'an started overflowing; plastics that used to be pulled from the trash, and people's homes, now stayed in the trash.
But the more serious problem was the long-term one. China needs recycled plastics to make everything from cell phones to coffee cups, and shutting down Wen'an won't make that demand go away, any more than plugging an oil well will make people stop wanting gasoline. Wen'an's plastic merchants know that as well as anyone, and in the wake of the shutdown they scattered over northern China, reestablishing their unsafe, unclean operations wherever they could find an amenable government. What had once been a disaster spread across one county is now a disaster spread across northern China.
Who is to blame?
For sure, blame in part belongs to China's regulators. Despite the Chinese government's popular image outside China as an all-powerful, uniform, centrally administered force, it actually has very little influence at the local government level. Nonetheless, even if it were as organized and powerful as many in the developed world think, it's not so powerful that it can instantly transform the world's largest recycled plastics industry into the world's cleanest recycled plastics industry. Doing so would require figuring out something that Europe, Japan, and the United States have all failed to solve: how to recycle, profitably, all that ugly mixed plastics.
But as Josh pointed out to me in an e-mail, fixing Wen'an didn't have to entail wholesale industrial change. "No serious effort was ever made to work with the thousands of small-scale mom-and-pop processors [in Wen'an] to solve [environmental and safety] problems." Simple steps—work boots, respirators, and a municipal wastewater treatment system—would have made a big difference.
Ultimately, I believe, blame must also be placed on the consumers and the home recyclers—in China, in the United States—who buy plastics and then dispose of them in ever-greater quantities in their recycling bins. To be sure, it's all but impossible for a home recycler to determine where, precisely, a bin of recycling ends up. But it is possible to prevent that bin from filling in the first place. Don't like Wen'an? Worry less about where your garbage man is taking your trash, and more about how much of his truck it fills. In the meantime, the corporations that support Wen'an and places like it by purchasing recycled plastics from its businesses would be well advised to seek out cleaner raw materials. Sooner rather than later, enterprising journalists are going to figure out how to connect their demand with their polluting suppliers.
Perhaps at some point a private company will figure out a way to recycle all that cheap plastic. Or perhaps a government will do it first—China is spending millions on recycling research; the US government is funding very little. It wouldn't be the first time that technology and the scrap industry have combined to bail consumers out of their waste. But until that theoretical bailout comes, the world may have to learn to accept the reality of Wen'an and its progeny.
Before leaving Wen'an, Josh wants to speak to a doctor or some other medical professional about the health of Wen'an's people. So late in the afternoon we wander into some of Wen'an's few remaining village-style lanes, in search of a clinic. Our odds aren't so bad, actually: most small Chinese villages have a nurse or village doctor who can handle the minor medical emergencies of daily life.
Soon we come across a colorful tiled gate, and just beyond it, a pleasant courtyard. We stroll inside and, spotting an open door at the far end of the space, wander into a small office where a pudgy, solidly built late-middle-aged man is seated at his desk in flannel shorts, a gray polo shirt, and sandals with black socks. Light comes through the door and from a desk lamp, but it's a shadowy place. Two beds are set against the back wall. They're covered in old, dirty mattresses and, in the case of the one farthest from me, an old man or woman (it's hard to tell), crumpled.
The doctor looks up at us with surprise: foreign faces aren't common in these lanes, much less at his clinic. We have to talk fast, and Josh places him at ease by explaining that he's an American academic, a professor, somebody of repute. At that, the doctor, who obviously considers himself a person of erudition, bucks up and tells us that he's sixty years old, and has been serving this village since 1968. When he started, he explains, he and his colleagues were trained to treat the simple ailments of daily life; advanced diagnoses, much less treatments, were never expected of them. "In the sixties, seventies, and early eighties," he says, "most of the diseases around here were related to stomach problems, diarrhea, things related to diet and the water."
The poverty-related ailments disappeared just as soon as the county could afford to dig for deeper, better wells not contaminated by human and animal waste. Progress, however, has a price: those wells, he reminds us, were paid for by the plastic waste trade just up the street. "Since the eighties, high blood pressure has exploded," he explains. "In the past nobody had it. Now forty percent of the adults in this village have it. Back in the eighties, you'd only see it in people in their forties. In the nineties, we started seeing it in people over thirty. Now we're seeing it in people age twenty-eight and up. And it comes with pulmonary problems that restrict movement. People have it in their thirties so badly that they can't move anymore. They're paralyzed."
In the weeks following this visit I'll call a friend, a medical doctor, who tells me that the symptoms and the environment suggest that young villagers are developing pulmonary fibrosis and paralyzing strokes.
"Back in the seventies and eighties, you didn't die from high blood pressure," the village doctor adds. "Now you die from it. I'm sixty years old, and when I was a kid, I remember maybe one person who was so sick with it that he couldn't get out of bed [a likely stroke victim]. Now there are hundreds of people like that."
"What's the cause?" I ask.
He shrugs. "Pollution. It's one hundred percent pollution."
"Was it worth it?" I ask. "Was the cost to the environment and people's health worth the development of Wen'an?"
He shakes his head. "Health was better in the past. You knew what was wrong. But the sicknesses now, they'll kill you." He smiles at us. "Even I don't feel good. After you leave, I plan to go to the hospital, too."