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Early experience prompts dedication to the cause

By HOU LIQIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2023-01-31 08:44
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Yuan Rishe in 2008. CHINA DAILY

For the past 22 years, Yuan Rishe has devoted her days to environmental protection, spending more than 16,400 volunteer hours on related activities.

So far, a paper-recycling initiative she launched in 1999 has seen more than 1.2 million trees planted, and in 2021, the 29-year-old was selected as one of China's 100 model environmental protection volunteers.

The Beijing native's passion for the environment was triggered by a story about a German woman she saw in a newspaper as a child. Having failed to find a way to recycle batteries in China, the woman took her used cells back to Germany when she left the country for good.

After she learned that battery leakage can cause pollution, Yuan started saving the used cells from her toys in a plastic bag, instead of throwing them away.

When she heard that a children's organization was recycling such items and that children who sent used batteries to it would receive toy military rank badges as a reward, she collected 120 cells.

Excited by her endeavor, Yuan couldn't wait to send the batteries to the organization. "I became a lieutenant platoon leader," she recalled.

Beyond her expectations, the organization sent a letter of commendation to her, which put her firmly on a path of environmental protection.

"The letter was broadcast in my school," she said. "All children are a little vain, so — motivated by the knowledge that I could get a commendation if I contributed to environmental protection — I embarked on that path, and I still adhere to it."

In a move to protect trees, Yuan started a paper-recycling initiative when she was age 6. Her team placed a box they named the "green bank" in the back of their classroom and put wastepaper into it.

The money they earned by selling the wastepaper was then used to buy saplings to plant.

After the initiative gained media attention, it was quickly echoed by other children, not just in the capital but in other cities nationwide.

Only a year after the initiative was launched, roughly 90,000 pupils had participated and collected more than 650,000 pieces of paper for recycling.

That helped prevent 130 trees of 3 meters in height from being cut down to make paper, according to an introduction the Beijing Publicity Department wrote about Yuan when she was nominated as a candidate for the capital's role model in 2014.

The initiative made her the only school student to win a Ford Conservation and Environmental Grant in 2001.

At the award ceremony, Yuan met many environmental enthusiasts. As she held their business cards and noted the names of their organizations' websites, she got the idea to start her own online platform to promote environmental protection.

Supported by her father, she quickly brought the idea to fruition by using the 5,000 yuan ($740) prize she had received. In 2004, she devised a more ambitious plan: to afforest a plot of wasteland together with other children ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games.

However, after the plan was announced on Yuan's website, many students threw cold water on her proposal, rather than encouraging her, as they doubted she could find a plot of land to implement her project.

Yuan decided to turn to Wei Guiying for help. Wei, a noted environmentalist, had already planted nearly 370 hectares of trees without any government funding.

When Yuan contacted Wei by phone, the environmental guru offered a 0.7-hectare plot without any hesitation.

In 2005, when Yuan participated as a representative in the Chinese Young Pioneers Congress, she made friends with many of her peers from across the country. With their help, her initiative was promoted in even more schools.

For example, by selling wastepaper stored in "green bank" boxes, 12 primary schools in Nanning, capital of the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, donated 1,180 saplings in March 2006 to help afforest the plot.

The project was so successful that even before the Games started the area the students had covered with trees had already beaten the target.

Yuan's consistent passion for the environment has seen her involved in a range of protection activities, including water conservation, bird protection and the control of plastic pollution. Moreover, in 2013, she started a program to donate books to schools that teach the children of migrant workers.

In 2011, determined to carry on her passion, she chose to study at the Capital Normal University in Beijing, hoping to become a primary schoolteacher and plant the seeds of environmental protection in future generations.

After graduating, she followed her heart and became a teacher at Dengshikou Primary School in the capital's Dongcheng district.

Under her lead, in addition to setting up "green bank" boxes, her students have supported the "Clean Your Plate" campaign (which aims to prevent food wastage) and tree-planting activities in the capital, according to Beijing News.

Yuan said she feels happy every day as she sees "the children change little by little and learn from every environmental protection activity".

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