Bamboo has played a starring role in Asian culture and cuisine for thousands of years. Perhaps this legacy is most evident in the use of bamboo chopsticks. Simple, elegant and functional, bamboo chopsticks are a true icon of the Far East. However, the majority of the billions of chopsticks consumed every year in China and Japan are still made from wood, i.e. trees, rather than bamboo, which is a grass.
International diners consume an astonishing 80 billion pairs of chopsticks each year, predominantly in China and Japan. And most of these disposable chopsticks come from trees. But in recent years, environmental awareness and Chinese tax incentives have encouraged greater use of reusable chopsticks and more sustainable bamboo. Reusable bamboo chopsticks offer a safe and environmental alternative with numerous advantages.
International chopstick consumption
Chopsticks seem like such a simple, low-impact way to eat. Compared to metal utensils standardly used in the West, wooden chopsticks appear far more natural, closer to the earth.
Unfortunately, however, the widespread use of wooden chopsticks, especially in Asia, has had a devastating impact on nature. For convenience and sanitary reasons, the vast majority of chopsticks are produced for single, one-time use. The result is that, over the course of the last few decades, about 80 billion pairs of chopsticks get used and thrown away each year.
Because chopsticks come in pairs, that’s actually a total of 160 billion sticks. That’s a lot of wood. In fact, statistics indicate that this adds up to about 20 million trees harvested every year, just for chopsticks.
It’s incredible to think that all those little chopsticks could add up to such an enormous quantity of trees. But it’s just these multiples of billions that have created our current environmental crisis.
So, next time you toss out a plastic fork and think, “Oh, it’s just one fork”, just try to imagine if five billion other people were to do the same thing, two or three times a week. We would end up with literal mountains of garbage and islands of plastic. And that’s exactly what we have.
Environmental chopstick policies
In response to this chopstick-driven catastrophe, China (the world’s biggest producer of disposable wooden chopsticks) has placed a 5 percent tax on this calamitous commodity. This tax policy went into effect in 2006 and has had a significant impact in Japan (the world’s biggest per-capita consumers of such chopsticks).
Japan has fewer forests of its own, but the affluent population goes through about 25 billion pairs of chopsticks a year. About 97 percent of those wooden utensils come from China. So China considered it necessary to impose the tax as a way to curb deforestation.
Meanwhile, the more forward-thinking consumers around the world have been waking up to the reality of over-consumption and the crisis of waste management. And we are looking forward to a day when single-use products are the rare exception rather than the common norm.
Most environmentalists see disposable plastics are the bigger enemy, as these products will linger in landfills or oceans for thousands of years. Wooden chopsticks seem pretty benign by comparison. But once you’ve done the math, you realize what a horrific cause of deforestation these chopsticks really are.
Like most green alternatives, reusable chopsticks may cost a bit more in the beginning. But the long-term savings are tremendous. Disposable chopsticks cost less than a penny, before the surcharge anyway. Reusable sticks, made from bamboo or steel, will cost more, but still only a few dollars in most cases.
Advantages of bamboo chopsticks
The advantages of bamboo chopsticks, like most bamboo products, are tied to bamboo’s unsurpassed sustainability. Rather than cutting down a tree that will take at least a decade or two to grow back, you can harvest bamboo and see the new culms replace the old ones in a single growing season. Bamboo is a perennial grass, and when you cut it, the stems grow right back, stronger and healthier.
Compared to other materials, like ivory or metal, bamboo is still very lightweight and inexpensive. And, of course, as an alternative to plastic, bamboo is 100 percent natural. When they do finally wear out, the bamboo chopsticks will biodegrade easily.
Some users, especially the more passionate environmentalists, are concerned about the coating used on bamboo chopsticks. Manufacturers use a coating to seal the bamboo, which prevents it from absorbing moisture and flavors. It also makes the sticks feel smooth and comfortable in the hand, eliminating the possibility of splinters.
Some purists, however, prefer the texture of natural, uncoated bamboo. The roughness of this bamboo provides more friction and a better grip for picking up slippery things like noodles. For most of us though, the durability and reusability of naturally coated chopsticks easily outweighs the minor drawback presented by a wet noodle. Respectable manufacturers like Totally Bamboo® use only natural, food-safe lacquer to protect the bamboo and extend its lifetime.
Shopping for bamboo chopsticks
Ultimately, your choice of bamboo chopsticks will depend on your personal preferences. No doubt, you can find a wide range of utensils to choose from. But, in my 15+ years of experience with selling bamboo products, Totally Bamboo® and Bambu® are my two favorite and most reliable manufacturers of bamboo kitchen wares.
Specifically, the bamboo chopsticks I like the most are the Twisted Chopsticks from Totally Bamboo. They’re available from Amazon and from respectable bamboo shops, if there’s one near you. The sticks are steam-heated and twisted for an interesting aesthetic and a comfortable grip, with tapered ends. The price is very reasonable and the sticks are entirely effective and reliable.
Underscoring the critical shortage of natural resources, an American company called Georgia Chopsticks was making money hand-over-fist by logging the southern state to produce wooden chopsticks for export to China. Observers and economists hailed the enterprise as a great success, turning the tables on China, which has long produced a preponderance of America’s consumer goods.
China’s insatiable demand for these American-made utensils was more than Georgia Chopsticks could keep up with. And between 2011 and 2014, the company, based in Americus, Georgia, logged an unspeakable number of poplar and sweet gum trees to fill its foreign orders. The chopstick venture had big plans to expand production—and logging—but ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2014.
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