As landfills overflow, China’s villages struggle with the impact of the country’s trash problem

The wake-up call came with the tragedy of a newborn boy. In 2008, four-month-old Xie Yongkang was living 190 meters away from the Hai’an Waste Incineration Plant in Jiangsu province when his eyes began to no longer follow movement; doctors diagnosed baby Xie with cerebral palsy and epilepsy.

With no genetic cause, experts blamed the incineration plant. But the hazards of mismanaged trash had been signaled long before: Six villagers had died of cancer in neighboring Xiehe Village the previous year; five more cases were diagnosed in 2009. Soon, farmers began dragging dead livestock to the incinerator’s gates, demanding compensation.

A lawsuit by Xie’s father, brought with the aid of the Center for Legal Assistance to Pollution Victims, documented high levels of airborne dioxins in the area from years of the plant’s operations. It emerged that the plant had been built within the regulatory 300-meter safety exclusion zone from residents, and even lacked the proper environmental licensing. Yet the courts acquitted the incineration company, claiming inconclusive evidence.

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author Tina Xu (徐盈盈)

Tina Xu is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. She writes across film, literature, and society, spanning from indie documentaries to diaspora communities. Her stories for TWOC received the 2021 SOPA Award for Excellence in Regional Reporting on the Environment, and were finalists in Women’s Issues and Photography.

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