Green Living: Chopstick Wars

Does anyone ever give thought to a pair of chopsticks? It sometimes is present at your table at a meal or comes along with your take-away meal. It can be made of plastic, wood or bamboo. Chopsticks like most other disposable cutlery items pose an environmental hazard depending on what they are made with. Japan for example is the top importer of tropical and temperate hardwood. A lot of this wood goes into making disposable chopsticks. Trees from as far as the US, Canada and UK are cut down, cured, shipped to make little sticks which are thrown away after a single use. The carbon footprint is scary to think of.

In China, despite the 2006 5% tax imposed on disposable chopsticks and efforts to raise awareness about the damage they cause to the environment, they remain as ubiquitous as ever. Several hundreds thousand acres of forest are leveled annually to supply more than 45 billion pairs of chopsticks; according to one estimate this equals to 100 acres of trees per day! The landslide in China's Gansu Province that killed more than 1,200 people was a direct result of destruction of forests.

There are various bring your own chopsticks (BYOC) movements in Asian countries that will create awareness and get people to recycle, reuse and bring their own. Many companies have also started manufacturing collapsible chopsticks that can be carried with ease and reused. Eco-friendly disposable chopsticks also exist, but their cost prevents restaurants from making the switch. Ecota Environmental Technology, Ltd. manufactures biodegradable disposable chopsticks made out of corn starch, but they are more than twice as expensive as their wooden counterparts. Plastic chopsticks that can be reused are also an option as they can be cleaned in sterilizers. The other option is chopsticks made of bamboo.

Cutting down on chopsticks makes sense environmentally. However it does not make short-term economic sense. More than 300,000 people are dependent on the wooden chopstick industry, across 300 factories. Exports of their wares bring in $200m a year. In 2009, it was claimed that 300 restaurants in Beijing had ceased to provide disposable chopsticks. However, in a country of  1.3 billion diners, there's a long way left to go.

The  U.S. chain Panda Express still hands out wooden disposable chopsticks, which are in all likelihood manufactured in China. With the increase in popularity of Pan Asian cuisine, many restaurants in the US also hand out wooden disposable chopsticks. The Waribashi Project in San Francisco aims to increase the awareness of this problem through the art work of Berkeley artist, Donna Keiko Ozawa. Consumers in the West should also be equally mindful of their chopstick use, because what goes around comes around.

Photo Credit: Flickr