Though we never actually saw the white dragon, we heard its tale. The story goes that U.S. satellites spotted a white line snaking through parts of China. After investigation it was shown to be a stream of styrofoam litter along the main train line.
The embarrassed Chinese officials decided to eliminate the eyesore. First they launched a campaign to encourage employees and citizens to not throw garbage out the train windows. Then they came up with a more profound plan: to ban the use of styrofoam take-out containers altogether.
Polystyrene foam containers are a common annoyance around the globe: they cause pollution in their production, they are a waste of resources since they are used only once, they don't biodegrade for hundreds of years, and they release toxic gases when burned. And the styrene may even be a health concern as it can leach out of the packaging and into human fat tissue.
A few years ago some towns in California were set to ban styrofoam, but were forced to halt their democratic efforts when lawsuits were threatened by the Polystyrene Packaging Council.
So while in the southern Chinese city of Nanning we arranged a meeting with Wei Teng Xian, Director of the Environment Protection Bureau of Nanning City, and Xia Cheng, Associate Director. The graciously filled us in. And we were impressed.
A dozen cities including Shanghai and Beijing have already banned, or are in the process of completely banning, the use of styrofoam take-out food containers. Production of alternative, disposable boxes made from bamboo, straw or hay is well underway. In Nanning, they are testing a new box made from sugar cane stalks, and the complete phase-out of styrofoam food packaging will come into force on September 1.
Though the cane boxes are double the cost, surveys show that shopkeepers are not averse to switching over. And with 30-40,000 containers being discarded daily in Nanning alone, the authorities are keen to quickly implement the ban.
There was something else about Nanning that we appreciated right from our arrival, though we couldn't quite put our finger on it. It was a student who pointed out to us that Nanning had banned honking!
With the rapidly growing numbers of cars and motorcycles in China, honking and noise pollution have become a constant irritation. Every motor vehicle driver seemed to be constantly leaning on the horn. A man we met, Mr. Liang told us: "Chinese people want to own cars. It sends a message that I'm rich, that I have a high social status." Honking lets everyone know that you've arrived.
One day we had the misfortune of getting a ride in a car. It felt like we were participants in a video arcade game - you know the one where you're speeding the race car around obstacles and against the clock? Only this was for real! Cyclists and pedestrians were the obstacles, and as we raced around them the driver honked incessantly as if to say "if you don't get out of my way I'll run you over". Other road users scattered as our car raced ahead. Occasionally we spied loathing directed our way. We shamefully hid behind the tinted glass.
Our sense is that the Chinese don't complain much, but on this issue they did. After countless complaints from citizens who, among other things, had trouble sleeping from the constant din, last September the city of Nanning chose to prohibit honking. A one month propaganda campaign was followed by police warnings. Repeat offenders - honkers - had to publicly apologize on television. In the following months, over 350 had their moment of public shame. That had the desired effect. Very few have received stiff fines. The city is quieter, and the traffic much calmer.
Since drivers cannot honk other vehicles out of the way, they must drive more slowly, and with greater care for other road users. A simple measure, which cost nothing, has made the city much more livable. Other cities are now copying Nanning's silent treatment.
As we bicycled across the country we realized that the people of Red China enjoy fewer freedoms than we do in the west. But at least their government has the freedom - and the fortitude - to protect citizens against the power and ravages of certain industries that enslave us in the west. In some surprising ways China can teach us a few things about environmental rights.