The world’s fast growing appetite for Asian food has a lot to do with both population growth and economic development on the continent. Demand has soared in China, where GDP per capita has increased more than ten fold since 2000, and also in Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. The long-standing myth that disposable chopsticks are produced with scrap wood products just isn’t true. In fact, an estimated 25+ million mature tree (each usually over 20 years old) are logged each year just to make chopsticks that are used once and then thrown away. The statistics behind disposable chopsticks are surprising:
- In China, about 57 billion pairs of wooden disposable chopsticks are made each year. They’re made from cottonwood, birch, spruce and bamboo.
- Half of these disposables are used within China itself. Of the other half, 77 percent are exported to Japan, and South Korea.
- 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.
- Globally, about 1.4 billion people throw away 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks each year
- In the U.S., Americans threw out 31 million tons of plastic — including plastic utensils — in 2010, making up 12.4 percent of the nation’s municipal solid waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only 8 percent of that plastic waste was recovered from recycling.
The impact of so many discarded chopsticks is of course unsustainable. With China now the world’s largest importer of wood, governmental organizations are aware that the nation cannot sustain the level of deforestation needed to manufacture so many throwaway products. In 2006 China imposed a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks, a move which resulted in a drop in manufacturing.
Greenpeace China has estimated that to keep up with this demand, 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours. Think here of a forest larger than Tiananmen Square — or 100 American football fields — being sacrificed every day. That works out to roughly 16 million to 25 million felled trees a year.
The chairman of Jilin Forestry Industry Group noted that only 4,000 chopsticks can be created from a 20-year-old tree, 2 million of which were being cut down each year to produce them.
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.
Here’s the kicker:
Disposable chopsticks are made by boiling them in toxic chemicals. Disposable chopsticks tend to be consistent in color. The exact same color. This is due to the manufacturing process. Sulfur dioxide is used as a preservative on the wood. It’s used to create a consistent color and texture throughout the products.
In 2005, a Chinese consumer council warned that sulfur dioxide from throwaway chopsticks was connected with an increase in asthma and respiratory problems. Sulfur dioxide is a toxic gas and source of air pollution. Small amounts of sulfur dioxide can be used in the wine making process, sometimes even in preserving dried fruits. Technically, you’re not consuming your wood chopsticks, so it doesn’t count?
The most environmentally friendly option is to stick with metal chopsticks — Korea’s preference in utensils — but they can be quite weighty and slippery to use for beginners. You can also buy a set of formal chopsticks with a carrying case, and use those.
Out of all the animal protein options available, I tend to favor fish. My friends and family are also big sushi fans. Whenever we go out we tend to chose sushi diners to indulge ourselves with. (Good thing is that sushi fills us up quickly.) Almost every sushi restaurant I’ve ever been to, uses disposable wooden chopsticks. I always felt bad for using these chopsticks because I know that all of these chopsticks will end up in the landfill. For this reason, I added a pair of chopsticks to my travel utensil bag. It is a bit odd to pull it out during dinner at times, but then again, making waves is always odd in the beginning. Maybe I’ll just invest in a set of metal chopsticks instead. Also…. don’t eat your chopsticks.