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Environmental awareness takes root in China

August 14, 1996
Web posted at: 6:30 p.m. EDT

From Beijing Bureau Chief Andrea Koppel

BEIJING (CNN) -- Zhou Dingli stands amid a heap of trash, its rotten smell permeating the air. Most people might find the site disgusting, but not Zhou. He sees potential.

Since 1992, Zhou has turned tons of used plastic products in China into gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel.

"This way you put plastic waste to use," Zhou said, smiling beneath his hard hat. "This is a very big achievement for those of us in this field."

With more than a billion people and a commensurate amount of trash, China could use more Zhous. Slowly but surely, as environmental education becomes more common, it might just get there.

Until recently, the environment took a backseat in Chinese politics. But the government has come to realize that short-term economic gains are giving way to long-term ecological damage.

Thus, curbing pollution over the next 15 years has become a national priority as China examines efficient alternatives to coal, methods to fight soil erosion and other ways to clean up the environment.

Low-grade coal is largely to blame for the majority of the nation's air pollution, which steadily increased over the last 18 years of economic growth.

China accounts for 10 percent of global emissions, making it the fourth largest contributor to air pollution behind the United States, Europe and the former Soviet Union, according to China's environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The country has also suffered egregious environmental damage from its people dumping trash and contaminating rivers.

Economics or environment?

Some fear that the government may not keep its promises -- that it will continue to push economic growth, while ignoring the environment.

Liang Congjie with Friends of the Earth says that's why his environmental group is trying to make the Chinese public aware of potential environmental hazards. Once people are educated about the problem, he says, they will begin cleaning up. (179K AIFF or WAV sound) icon

Friends of the Earth is China's first and only privately run environmental organization. It began in 1983 preaching for nuclear disarmament. Suddenly, it has grown into the nation's strongest environmental voice. Over the last four years, Friends of the Earth has focused on education and projects, like saving the forest in southern Yannan province where 200 golden monkeys live.

"When we heard that the local government wanted to have commercial logging with this piece of forest, then we got involved immediately," Liang said. "We wrote letters to petition and to try to get attention from the public as well as the government. Very high officials endorsed our letter and supported us because this is (the right thing to do)."

It's a small step, one that holds an enormous global impact.


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