Nearly 80 billion pairs in a year– China’s disposable chopstick habit is an environmental disaster.
25 million native trees are cut down annually to keep the chopstick factories humming. Every day 100 acres of old-growth forest are whittled into chopsticks; 20 years of growth ends up with a useful life of about 10 minutes in a bowl of rice before landing in the trash. If China continues to use timber at current levels, Greenpeace China estimates that its remaining forests will be gone by 2020. Even as spilled oil barrels bob in its waters and its cities are blanketed in a miasma of hazy smog, a bunch of wooden chopsticks has emerged as one of China’s leading environmental woes.
It’s cheaper to toss them.
A pair of disposable wood or bamboo chopsticks wholesales in China for about a penny. With reusable chopsticks there’s the initial investment plus the time and energy to wash them. Restaurants are required to sterilize them between users, which can add 15 cents or more to the cost for each use, and wooden or plastic chopsticks degrade and require replacing after a relatively low number of cycles in a commercial dishwasher. Single-use chopsticks are cheap and convenient, until you figure in the environmental costs.
The campaign for chopstick awareness
The Chinese government tried but couldn’t break the habit. Its consumer ministry tried to sell the public on the cleanliness of reusable chopsticks, and the tax ministry imposed a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks. These efforts did little to change consumer behavior.
More successful is the independent Bring Your Own Chopsticks movement that has sprung up among young environmentalists and found a spokesman in U2’s Bono. Its founders looked to replicate the success of the reusable shopping bag movement in western nations by marketing a variety of eco-friendly bags and carrying cases for transporting reusable chopsticks. The movement is gaining traction in the younger, hipper quarters of China’s cities where markets and takeout noodle shops now ask if customers need chopsticks rather than sticking them into checkout bags by default. Some of the newer, entrepreneurial employers will fine workers who don’t bring their own sticks to the office, and trendy restaurants are offering incentives like a free bowl of soup or tea for customers who bring their own utensils.
Here in the U.S., chopsticks don’t have much of an environmental impact.
But we make up for it with the 39 billion plastic forks, spoons, and knives that annually make their way to American landfills.