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Surrounded by garbage
Global Times | December 01, 2011 20:02
By Feng Shu
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A ragpicker sorts garbage at the Nanmofang landfill site in Chaoyang district, Beijing.

The early morning sunlight tries to penetrate a cloud of dust that's been kicked up by the arrival of yet another garbage truck at one of Beijing's landfill sites.

The camera pans to catch a farmer harvesting lotus roots from a river that is covered by a thick layer of rotting waste.

Cut to the outskirts of the city where a village of scavengers have built their homes in the middle of a nasty snarl of trash.

The startling scenes are from a 55-minute documentary called Beijing Besieged by Waste by Wang Jiuliang, a 35-year-old commercial photographer turned activist artist.

Wang spent months tracking garbage trucks to hundreds of the city's legal landfill sites, illegal garbage dumps and recycling centers. He took more than 10,000 photographs and shot more than 60 hours of video.

Wang's original idea was to discuss the environmental hazard of over-consumption. He focused on garbage as the "evidence" and decided it was time to ring the alarm.

"Few people know just how much garbage there is in this city, all of these photos and videos I shot show just how urgent this matter is," said Wang who comes from Anqiu, Shandong Province.

With a borrowed camera and a motorcycle, Wang started to document his on-site investigation of Beijing's garbage trail in 2008. In the beginning, he sought the answer to just one question - "Where does the garbage go?"

By stealthily following a trash truck that collects garbage from his apartment community, Wang found his first landfill site in the eastern outskirts of Beijing.

"When I was still a kilometer away from the site the stink made me dizzy and I knew I had to stand firm on the slippery ground full of garbage," said Wang metaphorically describing the first time he saw a sprawling landfill which gave him an epiphany.

17,400 tons of garbage per day

Farm animals forage in garbage dumps.
Farm animals forage in garbage dumps.

The Beijing government operates 28 garbage landfill sites where 70 percent of the city's 17,400 tons of garbage a day is disposed of. Last year the city's nearly 20 million people generated 6.35 million tons of garbage.

Finding a place to stash the never-ending mountains of trash is putting pressure on Beijing's waste management efforts. Officials say the existing sites will soon be full.

"When the current landfills reach their limit, it won't be easy to find new ones," Wei Panming, the deputy director of Beijing's Solid Waste Management Department, said apocalyptically.

Wei told the Global Times that in April 2010 the city decided to invest 10 billion yuan to upgrade its waste treatment system over the next five years. The plan, which has yet to be crafted in detail and presented publicly, suggested that incinerating 40 percent of the city's garbage, up from the current 15 percent, would help extend the life of its landfill sites.

Wei declined to provide more specifics of the city's expensive and ambitious new waste disposal plan. Other media reports show that the plan includes providing households with different color bins to encourage them to separate their garbage into kitchen waste, recyclables and other waste.

The recycling effort doesn't much impress Wang, who says most people haven't learned the importance of being part of the solution to the problem. "Nobody seems to care about it," he said.

Wang's video essay of Beijing's garbage dumps suggests there are more than 1,000 illegal landfills, where an army of garbage pickers scour the waste for anything that can be recycled for cash. The unlicensed illegal sites take no precautions to protect the environment before going into business or during their operation, said Wang.

Wang used satellite images from Google Earth to look for telltale signs of landfill sites. He also used less high tech sleuthing methods; he simply followed garbage trucks to the final destinations.

"If the trucks led to a place where I could see lots of black smoke and many crows, then I was sure there must be a landfill," said Wang. 

Once he confirmed the location of a landfill or garbage dump he marked the site on a map. After racking up 17,000 kilometers on his motorcycle, Wang said he's identified more than 460 landfills and dumps in the outskirts of Beijing.

Stepping back from his map with hundreds of yellow dots he was shocked to realize that this glittering international metropolis is surrounded by waste. 

"I never knew there are so much garbage to take care of and how close it is to us. Nothing is more important than raising people's awareness and to help push the government to make changes," said Wang.

Wang's professional instincts have helped him capture images of garbage juxtaposed with life that are startling and provocative yet nuanced in terms of time and space.

His pictures and video document the effluent from a society that is obviously too affluent for its own good. His images bring into focus the shocking reality of a survival issue which for most people is out of sight and out of mind.  

Wang has photographed cows and sheep grazing on mounds of refuse - 50 percent of the garbage piled in Beijing's landfill sites is rotting, moldy kitchen waste.

At another site Wang snapped an ominous picture of urban sprawl, showing half completed high rise apartment blocks encroaching on what had been one of the city's rural garbage dumps.

His documentary reveals a partial dried up river, where the newly exposed riverbed is filled with trash more than a meter deep.

"We might not drink water from this river, but who can guarantee that we won't eat vegetables that were irrigated by this river. It's not hard to imagine that the waste we throw away somehow comes back to us," Wang says in the narration of his documentary.

 Push forward the change


Photographer Wang Jiuliang focuses his camera on a garbage dump in Beijing. Photos: Courtesy of Wang Jiuliang
Photographer Wang Jiuliang focuses his camera on a garbage dump in Beijing. Photos: Courtesy of Wang Jiuliang

Wang's surreptitious shooting of the ugly side of the city hasn't won him many friends at Beijing's municipal government.

 He was called to attend a meeting with government officials, which ended unhappily. "They are pretty sensitive about the photos I took," said Wang, suggesting that the government is overly image conscious.

Wei, from Beijing's Solid Waste Management Department, acknowledges that the city has a mess on its hand and is attempting to do something about it. Wei said more than 700 illegal landfills have either been shut down or are being better managed.

Wei credits Wang's documentary exposé with helping focus the issue of waste in the public mindset.

"His photos and film present the urgency of Beijing's garbage issue, and to some degree have played a role in raising public's awareness about garbage," said Wei.

So far, Wang has only managed to hold two photo exhibitions and in April his documentary premiered at a private cinema in Beijing to an audience of 300. He's also held private screenings in other cities around the country.

Looking for funders

Wang hasn't yet applied for a broadcast license for his documentary from the State Administration of Film and Television, which would allow his program to be broadcast on television.  No broadcaster has yet offered to air the program.

Wang knew from the very beginning that an artist's impression of garbage was not going to be a big money maker. He had to suspend shooting when he ran out of money and he keeps a long list of names of people to whom he remains indebted and will likely have to hold onto their IOUs for some time.

Wang's next project is titled "Super Market" in which he plans to focus the public's attention on the start line of over-consumption by building a scale model of a store made out of product packaging and other consumer waste.

Wang is busy looking for sponsors and has had no takers from the corporate world where few want to see their products become subjects in a program about waste they cause.

Nowadays, Wang lives on grants he receives from NGOs. He was recently awarded a grant from Ford Green, an NGO affiliated with Ford China.

"Wang shoulders lots of social responsibility, we just can't let such a conscientious person be ploughed under," said Yang Chen, a program coordinator with Ford Green.

Wang admits he's feeling a lot more pressure since the birth of his daughter this summer, but he's not likely to go back to snapping pictures of fashion models in well-equipped studios, where he once earned a decent living.

Wang is convinced the best thing he can do for his daughter's future is continue to raise awareness of an issue that threatens to envelop the next generation.

"If we were ostriches we could just bury our heads in the sand, we can't keep silent," said Wang.


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