Disposable chopsticks: time to end the waste

The fast pace of modern life has made disposable chopsticks an essential feature of our dining tables. But the wasted resources caused by their overuse cannot be ignored, argues Chen Shuxuan

China uses over 40 billion pairs of single-use chopsticks a year, according to a Ministry of Commerce official. Although the wood used to produce those chopsticks is only a small part of China’s total timber consumption, the waste is huge: used chopsticks are thrown in with the rubbish and not recycled.

With China’s total forest coverage only two-thirds of the world average, according to the State Forestry Administration, the use of single-use products such as disposable wood or bamboo chopsticks is widely seen as a waste of limited resources.

The Chinese government has come up with a number of policies to limit the use of disposable chopsticks and conserve resources. These include a 5% sales tax imposed in 2006, and a joint move by bodies including the Ministry of Commerce, Ministry of Environmental Protection and the State Administration of Taxation to bolster oversight of the production, circulation and recycling of disposable chopsticks, with the aim of reducing use.

Despite the policy restrictions on manufacturers and restaurants, the use of disposable chopsticks is still the norm – we are used to a throwaway lifestyle.

A report from the Chinese Cuisine Association in 2010 found that 80% of diners said they used disposable tableware “often” or “occasionally”, while only 2% said “never”. It seems that only lifestyle changes and an increased awareness of forestry conservation will end this waste of resources.

This isn’t just a matter of government policy – changing our dining habits can also make a difference. Requesting non-disposable tableware in a restaurant; saying you do not need chopsticks when ordering takeaway; and carrying your own chopsticks to use in smaller restaurants.

These are easy changes to make, and although they may seem tiny, the impact if everyone did this would be huge.

The government could also act to further guide consumers. For example, better oversight of restaurant hygiene would make diners less reliant on disposable tableware. And a system for recycling disposable chopsticks would allow resources to be reused.

Chen Shuxuan is a forestry campaigner at Greenpeace