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Chinese plastic bag hero takes campaign to parliament

by Staff Writers
Yongjia, China (AFP) March 12, 2009
It takes something unique for a former peasant from a rural family in China to become a member of the Communist Party's parliament. For Chen Fei his path began with a plastic bag.

His crusade to ban plastic bags began in 2000 when he was shocked by seeing trees in his lush countryside hometown in eastern China's Zhejiang province covered with dozens of plastic sacks that had been blown up by a storm.

"It was horrible," the talkative and warm Chen said during a recent interview in Yongjia before coming to Beijing for the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, which finishes on Friday.

After investigating further he learnt about the toxic nature of plastic bags, used mostly for carrying food, and the former farmer embarked on a one-man crusade to have them banned.

Now an entrepreneur running a fertiliser business, Chen, 53, has travelled all over China trying to get rid of the plastic bag, offering private individuals and retailers free biodegradable baskets produced at a factory in his home village.

"At the beginning, people would tell me, 'you are throwing your money out the window'," he said.

According to his calculations, Chen has spent 30,000 yuan (4,400 dollars) in his eight years trying to convince nearly every province in China to use the baskets he distributes.

However, the publicity and awareness he has generated has been priceless.

Chen's first major victory came at the end of 2004 when authorities in his home village of Zhu'an put up a sign saying plastic bags were uncivil and a nuisance to people's health and the environment.

The village soon became the first place in China to ban plastic bags.

"Everyone was in agreement," Chen said proudly.

"Meat could be packaged in rice straw, vegetables could be carried in baskets or paper bags."

Now the village's 800-year-old ancestral temple has been turned into an exhibition hall for Chen's work, displaying different kinds of plastic bags, his environment prizes and press clippings of his national campaign.

His work also led Chen, a Communist Party member, to being appointed last year to the rubber-stamp national parliament, as the government sought to show it was becoming more environment-friendly.

For this year's parliamentary meeting, Chen transported 3,000 of his baskets, made out of plant material, to distribute to all the other delegates.

An estimated three billion plastic bags were being used in China daily when Chen scored perhaps his biggest victory -- an outright ban in June last year on the distribution of free plastic bags at supermarkets throughout the nation.

New figures for plastic bag use are not yet available, but the ban is a huge source of pride for Chen, although he knows there is a lot of work still to do.

"We have to pay a lot of attention to the environment," he said.

Indeed, China is one of the world's most polluted nations, after nearly three decades of economic reforms that placed the environment far behind expanding wealth as a priority.

Although the government has sought in recent years to improve the situation, Environment Protection Minister Zhang Lijun last month painted a grim picture.

"The general situation of environmental pollution does not allow us to be optimistic," Zhang said.

The average air quality in 40 percent of Chinese cities ranges from "polluted" to "hazardous", a recent government report said.

And in urban areas, 90 percent of river water and half of underground water is polluted.

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Smog raises risk of dying from lung disease: study
Chicago (AFP) March 11, 2009
In a study which could impact air quality regulation, researchers said Wednesday that chronic exposure to one of the major components of smog significantly raises the risk of dying from lung disease.

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