Chopsticks for sale in Tokyo (Steven-L-Johnson / Flickr)
This post is part of KQED's Do Now U project. Do Now U is a biweekly activity for students and the public to engage and respond to current issues using social media. Do Now U aims to build civic engagement and digital literacy for learners of all ages. This post was written by Mai Hagihara, Anh Nguyen, Liza Simon, Manami Tokumoto and Yo Inoue, students at University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Would you support a ban on disposable chopsticks? Why or why not? #DoNowUChopsticks
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Learn More About the Debate on Disposable Chopsticks
Eighty billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used (and thrown away) annually worldwide. Why have disposable chopsticks become so popular across the globe? They are cheap, lightweight and easy to use, even for those who did not grow up with chopsticks at the family dinner table. The popularity of disposable wooden chopsticks fuels a huge demand not just for the items but for raw materials that go into their making. In China and Japan, major manufacturers annually harvest more than 20 million trees to collect the raw materials for making disposable chopsticks. If this trend continues, it will accelerate deforestation, which will have environmental consequences across the globe. Therefore, many people with environmental concerns would like to ban the use of disposable chopsticks in favor of reusable chopsticks. Others say that disposable chopsticks are more sanitary and can be manufactured from wood that would otherwise be wasted. As consumer demand for disposable chopsticks continues to grow, so will the debate about their use.
Why Ban Disposable Chopsticks? Supporters of a ban on disposable wooden chopsticks say it makes good environmental sense to switch to reusable chopsticks. They say that as recently as 2009, Chinese officials estimated that their country alone was producing about 57 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks annually, equal to about 3.8 million trees. Supporters of the ban say that this loss of forest has dire consequences for the entire planet—not just for China and Japan, where most disposable chopsticks are made and used. Deforestation leads to a worldwide loss of biodiversity, loss of wood as a major resource, erosion of fertile soil, alterations in climate, and an increased potential for massive landslides and severe flooding. In fact, proponents of the ban are quick to point out that the entire ecosystem depends on the vitality of forests everywhere. They argue that it is a travesty when forests are being felled to make disposable chopsticks and other items that are discarded after a single use. Disposable chopsticks are certainly a convenience, but this convenience comes at a cost.
The growing demand for chopsticks overseas—and a freeze by China on cutting their own forests—spurred chopstick manufacturing plants in the United States, and the harvesting of domestic forests for raw materials. In late 2010, a chopstick manufacturing company opened in central Georgia. The desire for disposable chopsticks worldwide was so high that they had difficulty keeping up with the demand. Though the company has since shut down, it cleared forests of poplar and sweet gum trees from the region to make the chopsticks.Proponents of a ban say this is a cautionary tale of what could happen on many continents, if there is not concerted action to switch to reusable chopsticks.
Proponents of the ban also argue that China, the world’s biggest supplier of disposable wooden chopsticks, is now acknowledging that the business profits are not worth the devastation of our forests. According to Bo Guangxin of China’s Jilin Forestry Industry Group, only 4,000 chopsticks can be created from a 20-year-old tree. At this rate, around 400 million trees would be destroyed in the next 20 years in order to produce disposable chopsticks. Those who argue for the ban say that is imperative to understand that this loss of trees also contributes to global warming.
Another issue raised by people who are calling for a ban on disposable wooden chopsticks involves claims that the utensils may be unsanitary depending how and where they are made. Critics say that the standards of production in China are too lax to ensure that wooden chopsticks aren’t harmful to human health.
Why Do Some Oppose a Ban? Opponents of a ban on disposable wooden chopsticks say that these utensils are more hygienic and that their reusable counterparts pose a risk to human health. They point to the increased use of disposable chopsticks during the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in Asian countries, when people were worried about the disease spreading due to improper cleaning of reusable chopsticks. While the SARS threat was brought under control by cooperation of international public health authorities, many consumers who experienced the threat of SARS still argue that it is best to err on the side of caution when human health is concerned. They feel that the best way to ensure that diseases doesn’t spread via previously used chopsticks is to stick with the disposable variety.
Some opponents of the ban also contend that the restaurant industry would unfairly be burdened with economic setbacks that would eventually work against environmental interests. They say that the reusable chopsticks are cost-prohibitive for restaurants and that the restaurants would then pass on that higher cost to consumers. Disposable chopsticks have also become the convenient and affordable choice for consumers. So, opponents to a ban say that prohibiting their use in the commercial sector would not necessarily affect the market for chopsticks in private homes where regulation would be difficult to enforce. And, even though disposable chopsticks are responsible for deforestation, the utensils are but one small contributor to this problem—agriculture, ranching, commercial logging and mining industries have much more impact.
In addition, opponents of a chopsticks ban say that disposable wooden chopsticks can even be eco-friendly. For example, Japan’s Eco Media Foundation says that many of the nation’s forests are overgrown, and making disposable chopsticks out of trees that need to be cut down saves forests and leads to a healthier ecosystem. Another argument is simply that people should be free to choose whatever type of chopsticks they prefer.
So, what do you think? Should the world continue to use disposable chopsticks or would it be better to shift to reusable ones? Why or why not?
Video: CBS Chinese Chopsticks Made in America
In this video from 2011, hear how Georgia Chopsticks created local jobs by by manufacturing and selling wooden chopsticks to China.
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