China's Ministry of Commerce, together with five other ministries, issued this warning in June: "Companies making disposable chopsticks will face local government restrictions aimed at decreasing the use of the throwaway utensil.... Production, circulation and recycling of disposable chopsticks should be more strictly supervised."
With summer floods devastating southern, western and northeastern China, a massive oil spill smothering the Yellow Sea off the port of Dalian, 3,000 barrels of chemicals bobbing aimlessly but threateningly in the Songhua River in the northeast, and nearly half a million newly registered cars — just since January — on Beijing roads spewing who knows how much additional carbon dioxide into the air, you may think that the government is unnecessarily overreaching in waging a war on the disposable chopstick.
But start doing the math and the disposable chopstick, made largely from birch and poplar (and, less so, from bamboo, because of its higher cost) begins to look deeply menacing — an environmental disaster not to be taken lightly. Begin 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.)
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. Deforestation is one of China's gravest environmental problems, leading to soil erosion, famine, flooding, carbon dioxide release, desertification and species extinction.
If the disposable chopstick has to go, you can be sure that its death will be a slow one. Calls to abandon the use-and-toss type began more than 10 years ago and have since persisted unabated. By 2006, the activism had become more strenuous: Citizens launched a BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) movement, which continues to gather momentum. And Greenpeace China, channeling Nancy Reagan, sponsored a "Say no to disposable chopsticks" campaign. In 2008, endangered orangutans (OK, they probably were just guys dressed as orangutans) took up the cause, bursting into cafeterias in China of large companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Intel to remind diners of the ecological perils of chopstick deforestation.
Yet, more than 10 years later, the targeted disposable remains with us. Why?
First, while we in the West don't give much thought to a chopstick "industry," in China, where 100,000 people in more than 300 plants are employed in the manufacture of the wooden utensils, it's most definitely a flourishing enterprise. And just as jobs trump environmental issues in the West (think the coal, oil and logging industries), the argument that 100,000 jobs are at stake is a refrain that carries considerable weight. As Lian Guang, president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade Assn., told the China Daily in 2009, "The chopstick industry is making a great contribution by creating jobs for poor people in the forestry regions," adding that melamine-resin chopsticks are hardly a sanitary substitute with their "high formaldehyde content." His mention of melamine resin is an effective touch, I admit.
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.
The warning issued by the Ministry of Commerce would appear to be a step in the right direction. Realistically, though, it offers scant hope; it simply has no teeth. It doesn't address the specific restrictions to be imposed, nor the nature of consequences for violations. Most tellingly, it sidesteps making any particular agency responsible for enforcement.
That the Chinese leadership is now taking sides in the war over disposable chopsticks is nonetheless heartening. But in the end, the outcome will be determined by the people, who will decide whether carrying their own sticks and bearing the costs of reusables is too large a price to pay to protect China's quickly disappearing forests.
Daniel K. Gardner is a professor of history and the director of the program in East Asian studies at Smith College.