Chopsticks: The cutlery conundrum

Some 45 billion chopsticks are used and chucked away in China each year. Campaigners want to change that, but face huge economic and cultural obstacles

A A A

For the humble chopstick, life is predictable. Start off as a tree, one of the 25 million felled each year for the purpose. Spend a brief few weeks, newly-whittled, encased in paper. Then wind up on someone's plate, where you are expertly used to shovel noodles, or rice, or meat into a mouth. Then that's it. It's time to face the great landfill in the sky.

Millions of chopsticks meet their end like this. In fact, billions – 45 billion a year in China alone, taking with them some 100 acres of birch, poplar and bamboo forest a day. It is one reason why attempts are under way to turn the Chinese off their disposable cutlery and on to the longer-lasting kind.

In 2006, the Government introduced a 5% tax on all disposable wooden chopsticks following petitions from schoolchildren and citizens' group. Since then, efforts to curb the wooden sticks' use have increased. A BYOC (Bring Your Own Chopsticks) movement has been actively petitioning for sustainable options for some time. Described by the China Post as a collection of "young yuppies", they carry around their own implements when dining out. Occasionally, claims the Post, restaurant owners take it upon themselves to reward the yuppies' efforts with a complimentary bowl of soup. Greenpeace launched a campaign with the slogan "say no to disposable chopsticks." In 2008, activists dressed as orang-utans invaded corporate cafeterias – Microsoft, Intel and IBM among them – to discourage diners from going disposable.

Then, earlier this year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce joined with five other government departments to warn that companies using disposables could soon face legal restrictions. They claimed to "aim at decreasing the use of the throwaway utensil". "Production, circulation and recycling of disposable chopsticks should be more strictly supervised," they explained. It's a stark about-face for the Chinese government. Prior to the measure, they had actively encouraged disposables' use. They were, reasoned authorities, more hygienic that their reusable cousins.

The debate over throwaway instruments, while raging in China, is by no means limited to chopsticks. In the UK, disposable cutlery is thought to be used for an average of three minutes before being discarded. Plastics – including convenience cutlery, crockery and cups – account for 7 per cent of office waste (the overwhelming bulk, unsurprisingly, is paper). That's before the countless millions of knives, forks and spoons churned out by fast food restaurants, cafes and supermarkets are taken into account. Recent years have seen the rise of the Carry Your Own Cutlery (CYOC) movement, while websites such as Recyclethis.co.uk offer readers advice on how to reuse their plastic implements.

Increasingly, retailers are under pressure to offer – if not reusable – then at least recyclable options. Starbucks recently pledged to introduce renewable materials during its next round of store upgrades and has committed to using entirely recyclable cups by 2015. Pret a Manger, meanwhile, has pledged to go "landfill-free" by 2012. Not everyone has been so quick to change. McDonald's, while using recycled paper in much of its packaging, defends its choice of plastic cutlery on the grounds that washing up would waste energy.

How effective China's measures will be remains to be seen. The BYOC has been slow in picking up active support, and the government's waste warning, while a step in an environmentally-friendly direction, is more bark than bite. Legislation is looming, though as yet there are few concrete incentives for diners to trade in their disposables. Wooden chopsticks cost restaurant owners a fraction of what the more durable alternatives do, since the cost of sterilisation is high. What's more, the alternative melamine-resin chopsticks have a notoriously high formaldehyde content, which is neither great news for the environment nor diners' health.

Polls by news outlets have found broad support for reusable items. Some 84.2 per cent of participants told a recent Sina.com poll that they would swap for more durable options. Still, analysts point out that the authorities' interest is divided. Environmentally, cutting down on chopsticks makes sense. Economically – in the short term at least – it doesn't. More than 300,000 people are employed by the wooden chopstick industry, across 300 factories. Exports of their wares bring in $200m a year. In 2009, it was claimed that 300 restaurants in Beijing had ceased to provide disposable chopsticks. In a country of some 1.3 billion diners, there's a long way left to go.

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Arsenal supporters gather for a recent ‘fan party’ in New Jersey
football
Sport
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Balmain's autumn/winter 2014 campaign, shot by Mario Sorrenti and featuring Binx Walton, Cara Delevingne, Jourdan Dunn, Ysaunny Brito, Issa Lish and Kayla Scott
fashionHow Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
News
BBC broadcaster and presenter Evan Davis, who will be taking over from Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight
peopleForget Paxman - what will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Life and Style
fashionCustomer complained about the visibly protruding ribs
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Sport
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
sport
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little