Have Chopsticks, Will Travel
September 10th, 2010

Sometimes I am broadsided by issues that I had no idea were issues, such as last weekend when my family and I attended the Japanese festival in town.  Like all the other festival-goers we meandered around the grounds taking in the sights and demonstrations.  And when the time came we waited in line to pay for little paper boats of soba noodles.  We plopped down on a set of stairs, pulled our chopsticks from their paper sleeves, and gobbled away.  It was a beautiful evening and I had nary a care or concern all evening.

Then I remembered this article that I read last week about the environmental drain of disposable wooden chopsticks.  Apparently China goes through about 45 billion (with a “b”) pairs of chopsticks annually, or 130 million pairs a day.  Less jaw-dropping but still troublesome is the export market for chopsticks which tallies at 18 billion pairs per year.  In terms of land usage that means 100 acres of trees (about 100 American football fields’ worth) need to be felled every day.    

This is one of those topics that catches me off guard.  I had never once considered the environmental implications of wooden chopsticks.  Frankly, I prefer them because they don’t slip between my fingers and I feel less clumsy using them.  But now it seems that with every spicy tuna roll I eat, I’m killing the earth just a little bit. 

Like most issues, this one has a flip side: the economic implications of the wooden chopstick industry.  Apparently it employs more than 100,000 people in more than 300 factories throughout China.  Those people would, presumably, be out of work if there were a blanket conversion to reusable chopsticks.

The final component of this conundrum (not for me, but for the Chinese government) is cost.  Apparently disposable chopsticks cost about a penny a piece, whereas sterilization of reusable ones can cost anywhere from 15 to 70 cents.  Restaurants are disinclined to absorb this cost, but consumer advocacy groups are staunchly opposed to it being passed on to consumers. 

This isn’t an issue I can solve.  If I’m being perfectly frank it isn’t even an issue about which I have strong feelings one way or the other.  (There seem to be merits to each side.)  The reason it caught my attention is because it pulled me out of my little Midwestern work-a-day life and reminded me that there is more to the world than the radius in which I orbit.  Sometimes it’s good to be reminded of these things.  There are problems other than my own, that I might never have imagined, but which are no less significant to the people they affect than mine are to me.  (Also, if I’m feeling particularly green, I might start taking my own chopsticks with me.)

6 Responses to “Have Chopsticks, Will Travel”

  1. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    “…there is more to the world than the radius in which I orbit.” An important reminder for us all. Great, eye-opening post.

  2. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Huh. Who knew? You always give me things to think about, Gale.

  3. Gale Says:

    Kitch – That’s the best compliment you can give me. It’s why I blog and if it’s giving you something to think about, then I’m doing something right. Thanks for being such a loyal reader!

  4. Cathy Says:

    Wow – I am amazed – I had no idea. Regarding the cost, however, it seems like “going green” is always the more expensive alternative.

  5. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I’m with Kitch. You always make us think.

  6. Jane Says:

    And the flip side – yes, there is always a flip side. And when I consider the flip side I am even more confused as to what to do about things. But I like your solution – BYOChopsticks.