By Kim Robson:
As ubiquitous now as plastic utensils, disposable chopsticks have increased dramatically in use in North America and Europe in recent years as the popularity of Asian food grows. They’re most widely used in Japan, where 24 billion pairs – around 200 pairs per person per year – become trash-bound each year. The demand has resulted in the annual felling of upwards of 100 acres of forest and 25 million spruce, birch, cedar, and willow trees. This for an item whose useful life span is about ten minutes.
China produces the majority of the world’s disposable chopsticks at around 45 billion pairs per year. Forest replantation efforts there are rushed and unsustainable. Shrinking forests have had devastating environmental effects in China. The country’s last forest survey, published five years ago, documented rampant deforestation and forest quality far below the global average.
There’s a Greenpeace campaign addressing the chopstick problem, blaming it for the destruction of 1.18 million square meters of forest every year. Researchers have attributed the deadly 2010 mudslide that killed 700 people in Gansu Province in part to a 30% decrease in forested area over the last 50 years.
Many sushi aficionados are familiar with the ritual: open the paper wrapper, snap the chopsticks apart, and scrape the ends together to remove splinters. But there’s more than just splinters in your lips to consider. Shanghai Youth Daily reported on disposable chopsticks factories’ using sulphur dioxide to fumigate for insects and kill mold, and industrial hydrogen peroxide bleach to make the sticks look white, clean, and attractive.
The amounts used for an individual pair of chopsticks are relatively small. But still, hydrogen peroxide is highly corrosive, and excessive long-term exposure can lead to DNA damage. Noxious sulfur dioxide can harm respiratory mucus membranes, the esophagus and the stomach.
Then, after being “beautified,” the chopsticks are unceremoniously dumped onto the dirty floor and packed without sterilizing them or their paper wrappers.
“I seldom use the restaurant chopsticks and instead I ask for the disposable ones since they look clean,” says a typical customer. Restaurants are also resistant to change. If disposable chopsticks are banned, restaurant owners will have to spend more money to disinfect reusable chopsticks, as the cost to wash and sanitize reusable chopsticks is higher than buying disposables for barely a penny a pair. Also, many Western customers find it difficult to use metal chopsticks, and reusable hardwood and plastic chopsticks degrade after relatively few washes.
Additionally, since Shanghai and several populous provinces are the main producers of disposable chopsticks, a ban on them would have a significant impact on those areas’ economies.
There is, however, a growing cultural backlash in China and around the world against disposable chopsticks, led by celebrities, activists and environmentally-minded young people.
Bo Guangxin, the head of a major Chinese forestry group, told China’s parliament recently, “We must change our consumption habits and encourage people to carry their own tableware.”
Alternatives to Disposables
Since reusable chopsticks would be unfeasible at places like carry-out stalls, fast-food restaurants, and street vendors, at least look for disposables that are made from 100% bamboo, which is compostable and biodegradable. Bamboo is a sustainable resource that can regenerate much faster than traditional forests can.
There are companies that specialize in other, more sustainable options. Ecota Environmental Technology, Ltd. makes chopsticks out of cornstarch, but they’re more than twice the cost of the traditional kind. Japanese designer Nobuhiko Arikawa invented an edible chopstick made of sailor’s hardtack – a combination of baked flour, water, and salt.
Consumer demand can play a huge role in changing what restaurants offer. Financial incentives are another workable option: customers are already used to policies that allow them bring travel mugs for a coffee discount or paying five cents for a grocery bag if they don’t bring one from home.
Another option, seen at some sushi restaurants, is to let the restaurant store your own set of chopsticks on site. You’ll see neat rows of small boxes with names on them, each box holding a single set of chopsticks. You use your personal chopsticks, then the restaurant washes them and returns them to your box until next time.
Of course, my favorite option is to bring my own favorite dark hardwood chopsticks. There are so many elegant and charming styles and cases to choose from, why wouldn’t you want your own anyway? There is every reason to use your own chopsticks, and every reason to avoid the disposable ones.