Daniel K. Gardner: China's Fight Against Disposable Chopsticks





[Daniel K. Gardner is a professor of history and the director of the program in East Asian studies at Smith College.]

China's Ministry of Commerce, together with five other ministries, issued this warning in June: "Companies making disposable chopsticks will face local government restrictions aimed at decreasing the use of the throwaway utensil.... Production, circulation and recycling of disposable chopsticks should be more strictly supervised."...

...[S]tart doing the math and the disposable chopstick, made largely from birch and poplar (and, less so, from bamboo, because of its higher cost) begins to look deeply menacing — an environmental disaster not to be taken lightly. Begin with China's 1.3 billion people. In one year, they go through roughly 45 billion pairs of the throwaway utensils; that averages out to nearly 130 million pairs of chopsticks a day. (The export market accounts for 18 billion pairs annually.)...

...[W]hile we in the West don't give much thought to a chopstick "industry," in China, where 100,000 people in more than 300 plants are employed in the manufacture of the wooden utensils, it's most definitely a flourishing enterprise. And just as jobs trump environmental issues in the West (think the coal, oil and logging industries), the argument that 100,000 jobs are at stake is a refrain that carries considerable weight. As Lian Guang, president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade Assn., told the China Daily in 2009, "The chopstick industry is making a great contribution by creating jobs for poor people in the forestry regions," adding that melamine-resin chopsticks are hardly a sanitary substitute with their "high formaldehyde content." His mention of melamine resin is an effective touch, I admit....



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