Asian cuisine is one of the most popular types of food globally – especially considering the sheer size of China’s population. However, we must consider the sustainability of disposable wooden chopstick use that are used in the household and in the majority of Asian restaurants. It is estimated that over 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are thrown away annually, which is clearly having an unsustainable impact. Not only does the manufacturing of these chopsticks require huge deforestation projects, but they also end up releasing masses of CO2 into the atmosphere when degrading in landfill sites.
There has been some progress made in the industry, with China imposing a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks in 2006, resulting in a drop in manufacturing. However, consumers simply looked towards other South Asian suppliers, such as Indonesia and Vietnam – so the problem of deforestation was just shifted, not solved! Whilst some have argued for a change in consumption habits, encouraging people to bring their own cutlery or use metal knives and forks, it is important to recognise the cultural history behind traditional Chinese eating habits. This highlights the difficulties surrounding the need to find sustainable alternatives whilst respecting local customs and norms.
China has been named the biggest supplier of disposable chopsticks but there are several hundred Chinese chopstick companies that have global sale networks. The issues that I mention and the possible solutions I propose will be applicable to a range of disposable chopstick manufacturers – and consumers!
The majority of disposable chopsticks are made from bamboo, as well as trees such as cotton wood, birch and spruce making around 45%. On the one hand, disposable bamboo chopsticks are made from recyclable bamboo, which can be quite economical and environmentally friendly. However, large amounts of woodlands are still being destroyed, with one 30-year-old poplar tree consumed for every 5,000 pairs of wooden disposable chopsticks. This is having a detrimental effect on the local environment, resulting in mudslides, weakened flood resilience and destroying natural habitats. This has caused extreme events like the mudslide in Gansu province of China in 2010 which killed over 700 people. But this is not a natural disaster – rather a direct result of deforestation. Not only this, but the removal of these forests is contributing to global warming as CO2 is released into the atmosphere.
It is clear that the materials used for these disposable wooden chopsticks are unsustainable. I would recommend investing in a more sustainable chopstick that is made from reusable materials, such as titanium, ebony, fiberglass. You would only have to purchase these once and their easy enough to fit in your bag when you go out to eat!
Deforestation is not the only negative impact disposable chopsticks cause – their production process is just as bad! The manufacturing process is extremely carbon and energy-intensive due to the sourcing of other materials and chemicals that are added to the wood, as well as the fact that the chopsticks are then packaged and shipped globally. The majority of the world’s chopsticks are manufactured in China and then exported across the world, generating a sizeable carbon footprint. Furthermore, you may have noticed that the majority of the wooden chopsticks provided by Asian restaurants are packaged in paper wallets, another unnecessary resource contributing to even more deforestation!
The production process for the everyday disposable chopstick is extremely lengthy, consisting of many steps in order to preserve their quality and attractive appearance. The brief process includes: 1) moulding the wood into chopstick-size pieces, 2) frying them in an oil pot, 3) rotating them in a drum machine, 4) low temperature drying, 5) fine grinding them in a drum machine again and 6) polishing and cleaning. Furthermore, in order to create a consistent texture and colour, the chopsticks are boiled in a solution consisting of high-grade chemicals including paraffin, sulphur dioxide and even insect repellent! This is not only extremely harmful to human health, but when the chopsticks are disposed of, the decomposition of the chemicals contribute to soil and water contamination. As you may have gathered, this method is highly energy-intensive, and ultimately unsustainable when done on such a large scale.
Despite there being many manufacturers of chopsticks around the world, including the United States and various countries in Southeast Asia, China is the lead manufacturer and exporter. Though chopsticks are the go-to cutlery choice throughout Asia, Japan and China appear more prone to using this disposable variety. In recent years, there appears to be some backlash against using these disposable chopsticks, with activists arguing that the habit could eventually be phased out if individuals made the effort to. Organisations like Greenpeace East Asia are trying to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the unsustainability of chopsticks. For example, in 2010, over 200 volunteers collected over 80,000 pairs of used chopsticks that were thrown away by restaurants which they used to build trees, signifying the detrimental impact they are having on the environment. This shows how us as consumers have the power to make sustainable changes that, collectively, can make a huge impact!
However, the production of these chopsticks is not only harmful to the environment but is also a violation of human rights as studies on the working conditions in these factories show. A report on these disposable chopsticks referred to them as a ‘slave labour product’ since workers were squeezed into tiny rooms, working extreme hours to reach impossible targets and were often subject to physical and verbal abuse from supervisors. Though this is not representative of all factories in China, the fact this occurs at all is astonishing and needs to be eradicated immediately. The only way to do this is to stop using these disposable chopsticks altogether and opt for a reusable, more sustainable supplier.