June 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Chopsticks – Can We Reuse, Reduce, or Recycle?

Like disposable forks and knives, coffee cups, and shopping bags, chopsticks fall into the category of items whose useful life span is about 10 minutes. Given the amount of time, effort, and energy that goes into the production of these wooden, trash-bound sticks, it seems like something to think about.

The effects of disposable chopsticks have been a focus in China in the last 10 years. China produces the majority of the world’s chopsticks, totaling close to 45 billion pairs per year. Disposable chopsticks are used most widely in Japan, where 24 billion pairs are consumed and disposed of each year. This breaks down to almost 200 pairs per person per year. On top of this, demand for disposable chopsticks has increased dramatically in North America and Europe in the past 5 to 10 years as popularity of Asian cuisines continues to grow. This demand has resulted in felling upwards of 25 million spruce, birch, cedar, and willow trees per year.

[Flickr - Bruce Guenter]

[Flickr – Bruce Guenter]

In 2006, Chinese government put a 5% tax on chopstick exports in an effort to cut down the large market demand. Despite this, overconsumption, waste, and deforestation continues to be a major issue. Over 100 acres of forest are felled each year for chopstick production alone, and the replantation efforts are hasty and unsustainable. Shrinking forests have had devastating environmental effects on the area. Researchers have attributed the deadly 2010 mudslide in Gangsu Province in part to the 30% decrease in forested area in the last 50 years.

One option to ease the burden on China, is to shift the production of disposable chopsticks to other locations. A company called Georgia Chopsticks located in Georgia, USA has started producing and selling chopsticks within the States, as well as to China, Korea, Japan, and other countries. They are said to produce up to 20 million per day. Given China’s troubles in keeping up with demand, chopstick manufacturing in other countries is a profitable market opportunity.

But why is the world using so many disposable chopsticks in the first place?

Japan is known for its quick, efficient, and on-the-go culture. The use of chopsticks as their main eating utensil suggests why so many disposable chopsticks are used in lieu of reusable ones. But what about in sit-down restaurants both in Japan, China, North America, and abroad?

A customer would never be given plastic forks at many of the same types of restaurants who deem it acceptable to provide you with disposable wooden chopsticks. So why don’t restaurants that favor chopsticks opt for kinds that they can reuse?

Some sources claim that the costs for washing and sanitizing reusable chopsticks are higher than buying cheap ones for barely a penny per pair. It is also possible that the energy used by commercial dishwashing is on par with the production of the disposables. What’s more, many customers, especially in North America and Europe find it difficult to use metal chopsticks, and reusable wooden and plastic chopsticks degrade after a relatively low number of washes. The economic and environmental impacts are not totally clear from either angle, but we do know that disposable chopsticks create an enormous amount of waste.

Sometimes restaurants just need a push to be more mindful of sustainability. A group of graduate students from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia found that only two of twelve chopstick-wielding restaurants they visited in the downtown area offered reusable chopsticks. The owners did not provide a convincing argument for the disposables, and as a result of the visit a number of the restaurants started offering reusables for dine-in guests.

Another option, which I’ve seen at a sushi restaurant near me, is having your own set of chopsticks stored at the restaurant. This particular place has rows of small boxes containing a single set of chopsticks with a name on it. You use your own chopsticks, then they wash them and replace them in your box for next time. I am not sure how widespread this practice is but, for people who return to the same places frequently, this could be an interesting option.

Fast food restaurants and those that offer takeout, not to mention store-bought premades like sushi, don’t really have the option to provide reusable chopsticks. They can, however, provide more sustainable options.

These alternatives are easy to come by, for a cost. Chopsticks that are made from 100% bamboo (without other wood fibres) are compostable and biodegradable, and there are companies that specialize in these more sustainable options. Bamboo is also a natural resource that can regenerate at a much quicker rate than traditional forests. But, even in bulk, these chopsticks cost more than their wooden counterparts. Consumers should also make sure that these products are truly biodegradable or recyclable as composite woods often are not. Even if we are given recyclable chopsticks, would we know how and where to recycle them?

Ecota Environmental Technology, Ltd. makes chopsticks out of cornstarch, at more than twice the cost of the traditional kind. Japanese designer Nobuhiko Arikawa invented an edible chopstick made of sailor’s hardtack – a combination of baked flour, water and salt.

Traditional wooden disposables, in theory, could be pulped to make new products or used in agriculture. This would require significant investments in infrastructure and policy, as well as cooperation across the board from producers to consumers. So far, we as North Americans, as well as Japanese and Chinese consumers and beyond do not seem to be poised to put a system like this in place. That said, 30 years ago many North Americans barely considered recycling a worthwhile effort and now it is an institutionalized expectation.

Consumer demands plays a large role in changing what restaurants offer. In the interest of being sensitive to their customers’ requests, restaurants can decide to absorb the higher costs associated with providing more sustainable options. This can be done by providing reusables or biodegradables or promoting BYOChopsticks. Financial incentives could also work, as customers are already accustomed to policies that have them bringing travel mugs for coffee discounts or paying 5 cents for a grocery bag.

At the end of the day, different alternatives cater to different problems but it is difficult to pinpoint a holistic and feasible approach. To increase sustainability, decisions need to be made all the way down the supply chain from production and raw materials, to consumption practices to disposal options. Creating a more sustainable system for chopsticks and other disposable goods involves commitment from production companies to policymakers, to business owners and consumers.

-Julia Segal