Every 10 days or so, each of China’s 1.3 billion citizens tosses out a pair of disposable chopsticks.
Do the math—this is no small thing. 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.
About 100,000 Chinese are employed in the chopstick manufacturing industry turning out 77 billion pairs annually. Greenpeace China has estimated that 100 acres of trees are cut down every 24 hours just to feed chopstick production; that’s twenty-five million felled trees in a single year. A 2008 United Nations report estimates that 10,800 square miles of Asian forest are disappearing each year. Deforestation has lead to environmental epidemics like soil erosion, flooding, landslides, food shortages, carbon dioxide release, and species extinction. Environmentalists warn that if China continues to use timber at current levels, its remaining forests will be gone by 2020.
China uses several types of chopsticks, each with its own advantage. Longer sticks are used for cooking while shorter ones are for eating. Disposable bamboo and wooden chopsticks are the least expensive, costing about a penny a pair. Plastic chopsticks are also cheap but they’re not suitable for cooking at high temperatures, and like more durable but costly metal and lacquer versions, restaurants are required to sterilize them between users, which can add 15 cents or more to the cost for each use.
China’s consumer ministries are campaigning to create chopstick awareness and get people to recycle, reuse, and bring their own, and the government has imposed a 5% tax on disposables. In recent years, an independent Bring Your Own Sticks movement has been gaining traction. Markets and takeout noodle shops now ask if customers need chopsticks rather than sticking them into checkout bags by default. Some employers will fine workers who don’t bring their own sticks to the office, and restaurants are offering incentives like a free bowl of soup or tea for customers who bring their own utensils. Manufacturers are designing a variety of portable, folding chopsticks and carrying cases, and one company is turning out eco-friendly disposable chopsticks made of biodegradable cornstarch.
Not made in China
Last November America’s first-ever chopsticks manufacturer opened its doors in Georgia. Georgia Chopsticks, LLC currently produces 2 million chopsticks a day, nearly all of it shipping to China, and expects to raise that to a daily 10 million by year-end.
Wooden chopsticks don’t pose the same kind of environmental threat to the U.S. Here, wood is an abundant and renewable resource. While less ideal than reusables, disposable wooden cutlery is more environmentally friendly in its manufacture and disposal than oil-based, non-biodegradable plastics.
We might not have to worry about the environmental impact of chopsticks like they do in China, but we make up for it with the 39 billion plastic forks, spoons, and knives that annually make their way to American landfills.