Green volunteer for green China

Updated: 2011-04-08 11:07

By Shi Jing (China Daily European Weekly)

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Green volunteer for green China
Chen Fei hands out free baskets at a residential community in Beijing on March 9, calling on people to avoid the use of plastic bags. Weng Qiyu / for China Daily 

Zhejiang farmer champions environmental protection with a crusade to stop usage of plastic bags

There is an old Chinese saying that "all things are difficult before they are easy."

That saying may prove to be true if one takes a closer look at the pioneering journey of 55-year-old Chen Fei who is on a lifelong mission to rid China of plastic bags.

True to his mission Chen shuns plastic in all forms, and is always seen with an old and well-used bamboo basket even as he tells people about the harm that plastic is doing to the environment.

A farmer from Yongjia county in Zhejiang province, Chen gained fame for distributing 500 bamboo baskets in Beijing during the parliamentary session in March this year.

Though Chen was attending the session as a deputy, his move was considered timely as environmental protection is the main plank of the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

Chen's baskets are not eye-catching, nor do they come in various colors or designs. They are woven with bamboo strands and have a simple style that is reminiscent of the 1950s. But they are now being perceived as the symbols of the government-initiated "green" movement, particularly in the industrial heartlands of the Yangtze River Delta region, which encompasses most of Zhejiang and Jiangsu provinces.

Chen says that as a farmer the rapid erosion of the environment around him distresses him. "Pollution is everywhere," he says.

Although the toxic fumes and water spewing out of the factories in Wenzhou has yet to reach his county, Chen has spent the past decade as an ardent pollution fighter.

His journey has taken him to various towns in China, while his status as national deputy helped unlock many doors and lend an air of seriousness to his campaign.

Unlike other green campaigners, Chen has a different approach. Rather than focus on the complex issue of global warming, his efforts are directed at stopping the use of plastic bags.

"People say I am obsessed with the curse of the plastic bag," Chen says. "They are totally right about that."

Chen's "obsession" began in 2000 on the banks of the Nanxi River, the main irrigation source for farmers in county. Standing on his vegetable patch after a seasonal flood, Chen says he was "shocked and dismayed to find the entire area covered with plastic bags".

"Some of them (plastic bags) were dangling on the hedges and tree branches" after flood-waters rose to heights of nearly six meters, he says.

That sight also instilled in him a deep hate for plastic. "I never want to see a plastic bag again in my life," Chen says.

Determined to investigate the root cause of why the plastic bags ended up on his field, Chen's quest ended in the grocery stores and food markets in the neighboring towns and cities that were liberally handing out plastic bags to shoppers.

To his utter dismay, Chen found that the plastic bags were manufactured in several unlicensed factories in Wenzhou. "I am sure that it must be very polluting to produce these plastic bags without any form of government supervision," he says.

Securing some support from the government and some private enterprises, Chen embarked on his mission by handing out bamboo baskets to shoppers outside grocery stores in his home county. He later took the bamboo baskets to other cities in the region, including Shanghai and Hangzhou.

Chen's almost evangelistic efforts to make people cut down on the use of plastic bags eventually caught the attention of the provincial government, and in 2008, he won a seat at the National People's Congress.

"I am not worthy of the honor," he says. But "the number of plastic bags used in the supermarkets and food markets in Zhejiang has gone down by 67 percent in the past three years," he says.

To drum up public support, Chen set up the Yongjia Environmental Protection Volunteer Association in 2007. The association has attracted some 700 members, most of whom are students and retired government officials. "Our members are all volunteers trying to do what they believe is good for the future of their country," Chen says.

Apart from giving out free bamboo baskets, Chen and his teammates are urging people to use handkerchiefs instead of paper tissues to save trees.

More recently, Chen has been focusing on the pollution caused by commercial enterprises. He has made a passionate plea to electro-plate factories in Yongjia to minimize their toxic waste discharge.

Chen, however, feels that most of the local governments are relatively immune to his green crusade. "What they (the officials) have done is far from enough," he says.

At the recent NPC session, he put forward an unusual proposal for the government to organize lotteries with the proceeds going to environmental protection.

"My idea is not really offbeat," he says. "It is borrowed from many government-organized lotteries, like the China Welfare Lottery."


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