China’s Chopstick Conundrum

June 26, 2009


Eco-watchers around the world know that the prioritization of environmental issues can lead to tough choices. It can impact the way companies do business, and, in some cases, change the face of entire industries.

This past week here in China provides a case in point. In this instance, the industry under fire is that venerable staple of Chinese life – disposable chopsticks.

All chopped out?

All chopped out?

Many restaurateurs have historically chosen them over the re-usable kind for cost and hygiene reasons. In fact, the chopstick industry employs about 300,000 people, and exports 60 percent of its product, creating exports worth about US$200 million. By some estimates, China throws away 45 billion disposable chopsticks annually, representing about 25 million fully grown trees worth of wood.

But in keeping with an aggressive environmental agenda that China has recently embarked upon, Vice-Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei has called for restaurant owners to stop using disposable chopsticks and switch to the re-usable kind. He has even hinted at the possibility of future regulation in this area.

Needless to say, this doesn't sit well with the disposable chopstick industry. They have pointed to the fact that most disposable chopsticks are made from fast-growing birch and poplar wood. They have noted that melamine resin chopsticks – the most common form of reusable chopstick – pose health risks because of their ‘high formaldehyde content' and the possibility that restaurants may not properly sterilise them between uses. And they have cried foul about the number of jobs that could be lost if the government continues on its current quest to reduce the use of their product.

These may well be valid points. What is better, environmentally speaking – the harvesting of fast-growing trees or the use of a non-recyclable chemical resin? Does the ‘formaldehyde content' of the melamine chopstick have any impact on human health, and if so, is it a greater or lesser risk than porous wood, which cannot be sterilised? And what will the real economic impact be?

All of these are good questions, and deserve fair consideration. But the industry is short on time – and on public opinion.

In the past year alone, 1000 restaurants in Guangzou, and more than 300 in Beijing, have responded to the government's call. And a recent poll by major information portal suggests that 84.2% of online users support the end of disposable chopstick use on environmental grounds. Unless the industry is both quick and deft, it looks like a change in the way the Chinese use chopsticks could be here to stay – yet another example of how eco rules these days, even in the most traditional of Chinese industries.

Which type of chopstick do you prefer? Why?