Each day in Chengdu, China – capital of the world-renowned Sichuan cuisine – hundreds of thousands of people crowd into the city’s 60,000 restaurants to eat barrowloads of meat, rice, eggs, vegetables and chillies. To do this they use disposable chopsticks which require 4,000 cubic metres of timber. ‘For that amount you need to fell 100 trees with an average height of ten metres,’ said Cai Shiyan, a deputy of the National People’s Congress.
Throwaway chopsticks are now used in all but the poorest and the most expensive restaurants throughout China. The poor ones reuse bamboo chopsticks after cursory washing. The expensive ones prefer sanitized, lacquered-wood chopsticks. All the rest use disposable wooden chopsticks.
China is the biggest consumer, producer and exporter of chopsticks. It fells 25 million trees a year to make 45 billion pairs. Two-thirds are used in China and few are recycled.
But concern is growing over the environmental consequences. The Government is convinced that the devastating floods last summer, which killed more than 3,000 people, were caused by soil erosion due to excessive logging in river basins. Within weeks, the State Council banned logging and lumberjacks became planters in Sichuan Province.
Cai, who is campaigning for a ban on disposable chopsticks, says: ‘It takes 30 to 40 years for a birch tree to mature, yet thousands are eaten away in the time it takes to finish a meal.’
China is severely short of trees – only 13.9 per cent of its 9.6 million square kilometres is covered by forest. Its amount of forest land per capita is ranked 121st in the world. Now 12 of the 40 state-owned logging companies have nothing left to fell. ‘The remaining 80 million hectares of natural forests will disappear in a decade if this felling continues,’ says Professor Shen Guofang, of Beijing Forestry University.
Cai suggests Chinese restaurants should go back to the old days and reuse chopsticks – but always sterilize them. ‘Individuals could solve the problem themselves by carrying their chopsticks in their pockets,’ said Cai.
At Beijing Forestry University, disposable chopsticks have been banned. Workers at the National Environmental Protection Agency now use their own and six well-known restaurants in Chengdu have stopped using the disposable kind. ‘We need rigorous control over the felling of trees for disposable chopsticks,’ insists Liu Yun, director of the China Chopsticks Museum. ‘Export should be reduced, and production restricted.’