China’s Chopstick Threat

Today’s LA Times contains an op-ed calling attention to the forests being consumed by China’s enormous output of disposable chopsticks, which I suspect have nevertheless played a significant role in reducing the spread of communicable diseases (as have disposable hypodermic needles, which constitute another sometimes nasty environmental threat). China’s government is now trying to discourage their use.

The disposable chopstick, made largely from birch and poplar (and, less so, from bamboo, because of its higher cost) begins to look deeply menacing — an environmental disaster not to be taken lightly. Begin with China’s 1.3 billion people. In one year, they go through roughly 45 billion pairs of the throwaway utensils; that averages out to nearly 130 million pairs of chopsticks a day. (The export market accounts for 18 billion pairs annually.)…

Calls to abandon the use-and-toss type began more than 10 years ago and have since persisted unabated. By 2006, the activism had become more strenuous: Citizens launched a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) movement, which continues to gather momentum….

Yet, more than 10 years later, the targeted disposable remains with us. Why?

First, while we in the West don’t give much thought to a chopstick “industry,” in China, where 100,000 people in more than 300 plants are employed in the manufacture of the wooden utensils, it’s most definitely a flourishing enterprise. And just as jobs trump environmental issues in the West (think the coal, oil and logging industries), the argument that 100,000 jobs are at stake is a refrain that carries considerable weight. As Lian Guang, president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade Assn., told the China Daily in 2009, “The chopstick industry is making a great contribution by creating jobs for poor people in the forestry regions,” adding that melamine-resin chopsticks are hardly a sanitary substitute with their “high formaldehyde content.” His mention of melamine resin is an effective touch, I admit.

Then there are the restaurants. The alternative to wooden disposables is sterilizing the tableware (plastic, metal or durable wood chopsticks) after each use. But the cost differential is significant: Disposables run about a penny apiece, while sterilization ranges from 15 to 70 cents. Restaurants, especially the low-end ones, worry about passing the costs on to customers. And the worry would seem to be warranted: Consumer advocacy groups from 21 Chinese cities published an open letter in March arguing that the costs of sterilization should not be passed on to consumers as the food safety law obligates restaurants to provide free, clean and safe tableware.

Are paper shopping bags a threat to North American forests?

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1 Comment

Filed under China, economics, food, industry, labor

One response to “China’s Chopstick Threat

  1. boo

    Oh, this again…there’s a reason sterilization costs more: because it it a much higher strain on resources, requiring clean water, gas (for heating the water) and detergent, which all goes into the sewer and requires treatment before being released.
    Disappearing forests are a problem, but not due to these chopsticks. One of the reasons these disposables are so cheap is that they are being made from irregular remaindered blocks that are not of commercial (building) quality, and which would otherwise be disposed of or burned.

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