Eco headline of the week: Disposable chopstick addiction destroying China's forests

From the Washington Post: "China uses 20 million trees each year to feed the country’s disposable chopstick habit... 4,000 chopsticks per tree, that’s roughly 80 billion chopsticks per year." All those chopsticks have led to "rampant deforestation and forest quality far below the global average," and Greenpeace estimates the destruction rate at 1.18 million square meters of forest every year.


    1.  A large percentage of them are already made out of bamboo. There was an article a year or three back about disposable chopsticks leading to a significant loss of bamboo forests.

      1. Bamboo only takes a year to reach full height though, and it’s regarded a weed because of how it spreads and strangles other plant life. It’s about the most sustainable source of wood there is.

        1. Bamboo only takes a year to reach full height though

          That’s not true. Depending on the species and the conditions, it might take a decade or two to reach full height.

          …it’s regarded a weed because of how it spreads and strangles other plant life.

          Running bamboos may do that, but clumping bamboos stay where they are. And even running ones won’t spread in bad conditions.

  1. yeah, i’d rather have them start using 80 billion plastic forks and spoons like us!  USA!  USA!  USA!  :)

  2. Koreans use stainless steel chopsticks. The ones most people use are buffed in a way to give them good gripping ability.

    Koreans also use spoons, though, because sometimes you just need a spoon.

  3. From the Greenpeace link:

    “China produces 57 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, which requires over 1.18 million square meters of forest, according to the Forest Ministry’s statistics from 2004 to 2009. . . . But the country’s natural forest resources are extremely limited, ranking 139th in the world – so there’s absolutely no reason to cut down 3.8 million trees a year to make chopsticks that are used once and then thrown away.”

    How do 3.8 million trees fit in a little over a square kilometer of forest? Do they mean 1.18 million board-meters of wood?

    1. To be precise, 3.8 million trees in 1 million square meters means that there are nearly 4 trees per square meter.

      These are not trees. These are tomato plants.

  4. Assuming each chopstick is one centimeter wide, a half centimeter thick, and about 20  long, then yes, 1.18 million board meters would just about do it.

  5. Cutting trees to make chopsticks doesn’t cause deforestation. Cutting trees and not planting replacement trees causes deforestation. There’s no reason wood harvesting can’t be done in a sustainable manner. Every time you grow a chopstick, harvest it, use it and throw it in the garbage, you’re sequestering CO2 from the atmosphere and putting it into the ground, so if you have proper environmental regulation on the harvesting (so add ‘plant new tree’ to the end of that list), the process is downright green.

    1. Cutting trees faster than replacement trees can grow causes deforestation. Planting replacement trees that take 10-20 years before they can be harvested doesn’t do diddly squat if you’re cutting down trees at 5-10 times that rate.

  6. I’ve never seen disposable chopsticks made from anything else but bamboo, and bamboo harvesting is _very_ sustainable.

    (Disclaimer: I do not live in China, but still)

    1. I don’t know about China, but the Japanese love aspen chopsticks. Some of the largest chopstick factories in the world are in western Canada, where Japanese companies Mitsubishi and Daishowa are clearcutting old growth aspen to make chopsticks and disposable paper products. The Alberta and BC governments have been giving away these resources for years. The environmental damage is severe.

    2.  there was an article a year or three back about how using bamboo was leading to loss of bamboo forests, because the demand is still much higher than the regrowth rate.

  7. Why do wooden chopsticks have to be disposed of? Is this some kind of demonstration of increasing affluence? (‘See! we can afford to have disposable utensils , just like affluent West!’)

    I bought a set of wooden chopsticks in China when I visited there in 1979. Despite regular use, they’re still going strong.

    1. There are reusable ones and disposable ones. Probably has to do with the tightness of the grain.

      1. Also, finishing. When you buy reusable chopsticks they’re clearly coated or stained or whatever. The ones you get from most Chinese restaurants that you need to break apart are not.

    2.  Disposable chopsticks are unvarnished, unsanded, porous, and made of soft wood. They get soggy and splinter and cannot be washed.

      You can make perfectly re-usable chopsticks from wood, as you’ve noticed. They’re more expensive to make :P

      1. I just bought a pack of 5 pair at Kamei, a restaurant supply place near me. The chopsticks are finished and they came in an unnecessarily elaborate box. However, I happen to have a daily use for the box (storage of pens and drawing pencils), so I chose this package for a reason.

        And they cost $3.50. Judging from the longevity of previous sets, I should get about 5+ years of daily use out of these. Certainly there are solutions to be found for this problem. They’re manufactured in Japan FWIW.

        I think the larger problem is re-conceptualizing the use of disposable chopsticks in millions of casual and take-away eateries. Discounts for people who bring their own pair? 

  8. I live in china. It is my impression that most of the disposable chopsticks I see are dried and treated bamboo. This strikes me as a ‘thinly’  researched press release sort of story and I’ll treat its information as such. But I’ll ask my ‘native’ sources the next time I go out for dinner.

  9. In the land where you can find almost anything being made out of cheap plastic, I’ve often wondered why no one started making a killing with plastic chopsticks?  Of course, I’m not sure that’s any better for the environment than killing forests, but it does seem like the next logical step.

  10. This is clearly fark. I heard something like this about fifteen years ago.

    Note the scare-word “addiction” –do they mean that people become chemically bonded to chopsticks? Do they start with one pair, and then have to use hundreds per day? One new set every bite? — to what otherwise would be a ho-hum article.

    What does seem to happen is that a) every few years there’s a “chopstick crisis”, where Asia’s billion chopstick users threaten sustainable forestry. This leads to a reuse/recycle fad, which means that the sale of wood and bamboo plummets. The foresters cry poverty, disposables are touted as being modern and healthy, and the cycle is complete.

    Heck, I even heard this story in a childrens’ book.

    1. I remember reading about how disposable chopsticks were causing deforestation in China in National Geographic over 20 years ago. 

  11. “…and Greenpeace estimates…”

    Stopped reading right there. Greenpeace have previous form for ‘lies in the service of a greater truth’.

    “It does not matter what is true, it only matters what people believe is true.”
    — Dr. Patrick Moore, President of Greenpeace

    I’m not saying that there’s not a deforestation problem in China, but its an ongoing one. Heck, there are extensive reports of deforestation correlating to flooding and soil erosion going back to the 16th century or so.

  12. There’s a movement in Japan called “My Hashi”, which encourages people to have a nice set of chopsticks in a container that they can carry with them so they don’t need to use disposable chopsticks. It’s a nice solution.

  13. China has been largely deforested for centuries.  It traces back to the invention of paper and having a bureaucratic government.

  14. About forty years ago, I was with the USAF in Thailand. The street vendors re-used their chopsticks by dipping them into the hot cooking oil befor re-issuing them. Of course, I always kept my shots up to date(G)!

    1.  Greenpeace has shown a tendency to act like PETA at times and wander off into la-la land in the pursuit of its “higher truths” by shedding the burden of concrete facts.

  15. One of the main benefits of disposable chopsticks is that they are made and packed into sealed sachets with moist towelettes in a sterile environment. And by ‘sterile environment’ I mean that they are packed in the bike sheds behind our school without access to running water.

  16. I don’t think this is a problem of reusable wooden or plastic chopsticks being difficult or impossible to make (weird tone in some comments). It seems like it’s just cheaper and faster for many restaurants to give out disposables rather than constantly wash reusables. I don’t really get how fancy Asian restaurants still get away with disposable chopsticks whereas a restaurant at a similar price point would never get away with disposable forks and  knives.

    Plastic ones aren’t that hard to use. Just practise more. I grew up with them, so I prefer the perfectly round Chinese style, and eschew the tapered Japanese style (difficult to pinch properly) and the flat Korean type (just … no). 

  17. Stainless steel chopsticks are in my backpack, and I take them everywhere.  They fit everywhere you can put a pencil.  Also, they make some that unscrew into two halves.  Some people recommend roughing the tips with sandpaper to get better grip, but I haven’t had an issue.  Anyway, it’s a better system than the disposable utensils because — environmentalism aside — they’re not flimsy.

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