Using disposable wooden chopsticks is numbingly simple (unwrap, eat, throw away) and arrestingly common, to the point that wondering about where and how they are made seems a strange and difficult thought.  They’re just two little pieces of shaped wood, right?  What else is there?  The idea was presented to me only recently, and even the small amount of investigation I’ve done since has completely revolutionized my approach to these small but potentially hazardous and definitely destructive utensils.

The discussion of the toxicity and environmental impact of disposable chopsticks in the public realm is not new; a more recent article, published in a 2005 edition of the Taipei Times, discusses the findings from a study of various brands of chopsticks conducted by Taiwan’s Consumers’ Foundation: Many disposable chopsticks contain high amounts of sulfur dioxide, and chopstick packaging often contains high levels of fluorescent material [and] the amount of lead found on the plastic packaging of some chopsticks was over the regulated 100ppm.”  The article also mentions that particularly light-colored wood may point at large amounts of bleach used as a conditioner. Now, the purpose of this article is not to propagate the Fear Machine and convince you to quarantine the pair floating around the bottom of your take-out order.  The idea is to be more aware of how they are processed and the effects their production might have overall, not only on your body but on the world as well.

Public appeals to abandon disposable wooden chopsticks throughout China started surfacing a year before the Summer Olympics in 2007.  One editorial, posted on ChinaDaily.com, spoke of the call of the Olympic Organizing Committee to begin greening its approach to celebrations. Chopsticks may seem like one of the lighter drops in a trough of environmental degradation issues, but not so fast, says Bian Jiang, secretary-general of the China Cuisine Association: “The country produces and discards more than 45 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks every year, at a cost to the environment of about 25 million trees.”  Such a large country consuming it’s resources almost as insatiably as the USA has reason to be concerned with such a staggering figure.  Try to imagine that many trees, and how much land they cover.  As of this year, environmentalists warn that if China continues to use timber at current levels, China’s remaining forests will be gone in about a decade.

The effects of such deforestation are already being seen.  In a pointed editorial piece written for the Peoples’ Daily Online, Justin Ward relates his experience of waking up in Beijing to see “the city outside bathed in the orange glow of one of the most massive sandstorms in recent history,” an ominous sign of desertification, which is a result of deforestation. The connection between this and the chopsticks we hold in our hands is clear.

However, the blame for this immense problem cannot be put on China and other producers of chopsticks alone; all nations who chose to import and consume disposable chopsticks are equally to blame.  The China Daily article above states that, “despite boasting the world’s highest forest coverage at 69 percent, Japan imports all 25 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks it consumes every year.”  Who knows how many other nations import, including the United States?  And what can you do on an individual level?  Perhaps a start would be to purchase your own pair of well-crafted, washable sticks for home use and begin habitually bringing them out to meals or to work for lunches.  You can also suggest to your favorite restaurant that they invest in reusable chopsticks, and ask them not to include disposable chopsticks in your take out.

I leave you in the hands of Sam Bett, a local Boston publisher of multiple zines and first-prize winner of the 2008 Amagasaki Japanese Speech Contest, who was the original inspiration for the article’s content:

In today’s world where the effects of global warming have become visible in the daily weather, people are searching for ways to contribute to a solution. To that end, I recommend trying out personal chopsticks. While it’s a small statement, it has the power to produce major effects as the trend gains momentum.  Carrying personal chopsticks is more than just an environmental concern–it’s a matter of taste. After all, doesn’t a guiltless meal taste a whole lot better?

-Jeremy Pearson