Chopsticks are regular table settings for a billion-plus people; and they have been used in China for more than three thousand years. I enjoy using them myself when I visit my local vegan restaurant, SuTao Café. But I’ve gone BYO: I keep a set of chopsticks in the glove box, briefcase, and daypack. Ever since I found out, that is, that Chinese factories produce tens of billions of chopstick packets each year—cutting down some 25 million trees in the process.
Throwaway chopsticks are not a Chinese tradition. In the 1980s, Japanese manufacturers began outsourcing their production to northeastern China. At times, however, the Chinese government has promoted them, suggesting that they fight viruses. And China’s Wooden Chopsticks Trade Association claims the chopsticks are typically made from scrap wood, or fast-growing trees such as birch, poplar and bamboo. But even fast-growing woods take energy to process and transport; can the waste be so easily excused?
In Japan, disposable chopsticks are called waribashi; they’ve come from forests in China, and additionally from Indonesia, the Philippines, South Africa, and Canada, where a firm connected with Mitsubishi got in on the trade by clear-cutting aspen forests, shipping the material to Taiwan for finishing, and then importing the chopsticks to Japan. The demand also drives a timber trade from Russia that imperils Siberian tigers as well as Amur leopards – the world’s most endangered big cats.
Change is possible. In a sign that transformation is coming, people can now buy Kattobashi (“big hit”) chopsticks, made from the wood of the baseball bats which Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league breaks by the hundreds each season. Kattobashi, with the characteristic pointed ends of Japanese chopsticks, are now available online in the United States, as are Chinese chopsticks. And South Korea has largely switched to metal chopsticks, banning the use of disposable ones in all restaurants of a certain size. (In Thailand, chopsticks are seen in Chinese restaurants, but forks and spoons are used to eat Thai food.)
Wherever we live or travel, we can ask local restaurants to switch to reusable chopsticks or give discounts to people who bring their own. Even if the restaurants find it hard to change, we ourselves can make it happen by bringing our own – and giving the handsome gift of reusable chopsticks to friends who use them.
Lee Hall is the co-author of Dining with Friends: The Art of North American Vegan Cuisine as well as various articles, books, and encyclopedia entries on food security, climate and migration, environmental law, the feminist movement and animal rights. Lee’s most recent book is On Their Own Terms: Bringing Animal-Rights Philosophy Down to Earth. Lee has taught immigration law and animal law, and now works full-time as the legal affairs VP for the international advocacy non-profit Friends of Animals.
Disposable CHopsticks Image Source: Wikimedia Commons