Asian cuisine is one of the most popular types of food in the world. With China alone feeding a population of over 1 billion people, it’s important to consider how the utensils commonly used are impacting the environment. Throwaway chopsticks that are commonly used in most Asian restaurants are mostly made of wood, not plastic, and the statistics behind them are staggering:
- In China, about 57 billion (that’s “billion”!) pairs of wooden disposable chopsticks are made each year. Cottonwood, birch, spruce and bamboo are the main sources of these one-use chopsticks.
- Half of these disposables are used within China itself. Of the other half, 77 percent are exported to Japan, with South Korea taking most of the remainder.
- About 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used in Japan each year. This is equivalent to nearly 200 pairs per person per year.
- Globally, about 1.4 billion people throw away 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks each year
The impact of so many discarded chopsticks is of course unsustainable. With China now the world’s largest importer of wood, governmental organizations are aware that the nation cannot sustain the level of deforestation needed to manufacture so many throwaway products. In 2006 China imposed a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks, a move which resulted in a drop in manufacturing.
“We must change our consumption habits and encourage people to carry their own tableware,” said Bo Guangxin recently at a gathering of China’s National People’s Congress. The chairman of Jilin Forestry Industry Group noted that only 4,000 chopsticks can be created from a 20-year-old tree, 2 million of which were being cut down each year to produce them. Even more radically, Bo Guangxin suggested that restaurants might have to offer metal knives and forks instead of traditional chopsticks.
The prospect of China discarding its traditional eating implements – which have a rich cultural history and are not merely functional implements – is one that some may find difficult to accept. The environmental case, however, is compelling.
Deforestation caused by so much wood use not only harms the local environment – leading to mudslides and weakened resilience against flooding – but also affects global warming by the removal of trees which capture and store CO2.
The economic argument is also strong. Reusable chopsticks in Japan cost around $1.17 a pair and have a lifespan of about 130 meals. Disposables are about 2 cents a pair, meaning that 130 pairs will cost the restaurant owner $2.60.
Campaigns by environmental groups inside China have already resulted in the beginnings of a sea change in attitudes. A Greenpeace Asia lobby of Beijing restaurants, for instance, saw 300 of them agree to stop using disposable chopsticks. Meanwhile, a group of Chinese university students collected 82,000 pairs of used disposable chopsticks from Beijing restaurants and created four “trees” from them. At 16 feet high each, this “disposable forest” created a powerful visual image among local residents and businesses.
In San Francisco, artist Donna Keiko Ozawa has created similar sculptures made of throwaway chopsticks as part of her Warabashi Project.
Although a combination of cultural change and governmental action is probably necessary to reduce the waste caused by disposables, individual action by restaurant goers can also play a part. There’s no reason why taking your own chopsticks to dinner cannot become the norm.