By Emily Kuo, Expedition PR
It is said that chopsticks have been around since the Xia Dynasty in 2100 BC, then, in the form of a pair of twigs. Since then, chopsticks have become the eating utensil of choice across China, Japan, Korea and much of the Asian continent. With the relatively recent globalization phenomenon, the use of chopsticks has spread across the world.
Disposable chopsticks have long been preferred for their convenience and sanitation. Restaurants use them to prevent potential spread of disease, and for takeout and delivery meals. In 2003, many restaurants across China switched to one-time-use chopsticks because of the SARS outbreak and fear of contagion. However, this widespread use of disposable chopsticks has proved detrimental for the environment.
The Jilin Forestry Industry Group estimates that China produces about 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, cutting down approximately 20 million 20-year-old trees. Comparatively, between 2004 and 2009, the annual total was 57 billion pairs of chopsticks, and 3.8 million trees. Japan uses about 24 billion pairs a year, or about 200 pairs per person. Greenpeace China estimates that 100 acres of trees needs to be felled every 24 hours to keep up with this demand.
Not only are disposable chopsticks extremely wasteful, they also are not necessarily sanitary. Huang Bo, a Chinese actor, posted a picture on Sina Weibo (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) of disposable chopsticks soaked in boiled water. The result: yellow, greasy-looking water with a strong odor. Chopstick manufacturers use many chemicals to process bamboo and wood, including sulfur dioxide, which is known to cause damage to the respiratory system. There are also rumors of used disposable chopsticks being repackaged and resold for further use, spreading doubt about the already-questionable sanitation standards.
To decrease the use of one-time-use chopsticks, China imposed a 5% tax on them in 2006. The China Environmental Protection Foundation and Greenpeace China ran separate projects in which they created full-sized trees constructed from used disposable chopsticks. After washing and processing more than 30,000 pairs of chopsticks, the China Environmental Protection Foundation created a 5-meter-high tree in one of the busiest intersections of Shanghai, only to cut it down and leave it fallen. They then handed out sets of reusable chopsticks and statistics nearby to create awareness about the wastefulness of disposable chopsticks. Certain restaurants give small rewards include things like discounts or free soups for customers who bring their own chopsticks. In 2009, ex-Chinese President Hu Jintao told a UN summit that he planned to increase Chinese forest coverage by 40 million hectares by 2020. But Chinese timber consumption is so high that many have doubts that this will be possible.
Many individuals and organizations, including myself, now carry portable, reusable chopsticks, whether for sanitation purposes or to help minimize waste. I started bringing a set because my mom guilted me into it. She has been involved with a global non-profit organization from Taiwan, Tzu Chi, which has grown so big that it has initiatives have branched out from their original mission to help the poor, but also disaster relief, environmental issues, recycling, education, medicine and more. Active volunteers are encouraged to bring their own bowls and utensils to meetings and events to minimize their environmental impact. My mom brought these ideals into our family, taking her own chopsticks with her whenever we would eat out and encouraging me to do the same. A few years later, I now leave a pair of portable chopsticks in my bag so that when the need arises, I can use my chopsticks without having to worry about wasting natural resources or eating poisonous chemicals.
BYO chopsticks is quite common in Taiwan, and getting increasingly popular in Mainland China. In the US, however, it is not so common. With Chinese takeout and sushi becoming American favorites, the consumption of disposable chopsticks is increasing in the US as well. We need more creative ways to encourage people to switch from disposable chopsticks to reusable ones.
I recently attended a 2-day conference that served to connect, inspire and empower Taiwanese Americans, run by students of The Ohio State University under the umbrella of the organization Intercollegiate Taiwanese American Students Association, or ITASA. Their conference theme was “Taiwan Taking Root,” so it was only fitting that they would have activities promoting environmental friendliness while promoting a zero waste philosophy throughout the conference. As an attendee, when I checked in I was handed a pair of compact chopsticks, stamped with the conference logo and made in ITASA colors. This kit was given to every attendee, and intended to be used throughout the whole conference. This is arguably the most useful and coolest goodie I’ve received from an event.
While these were custom ordered in Taiwan, there are many portable chopsticks available in the States as well. Amazon carries quite a few, including a set that has spoon and fork attachments. Tzu Chi sells different types of portable chopsticks made of all sorts of materials in their bookstores and online: ones that screw together, collapsible ones, ones that snap together, as well as sets with fork and spoon attachments. Even Uncommon Goods sells novelty compact chopsticks. Get a pair for yourself, your friends, your family, even your coworkers to reduce the use of disposable chopsticks and save a few (or a lot) of trees.