China is stripping its forests to make 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year

China is stripping its forests to make 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year
Image: AP Photo / Greg Baker
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China makes enough disposable chopsticks in a year to cover the entirety of Tiananmen Square 360 times. That’s according to Bo Guangxin, chairman of the state-owned timber firm Jilin Forest Industry, who said last week that China makes far more wooden chopsticks for one-time use than was previously estimated—80 billion, not 57 billion.

Exactly where Bo gets his numbers he didn’t say, but it’s not hard to believe the figure is higher than government estimates (the last of which was in 2009), given the thousands of small food venders that evade accounting. But other countries are driving the mass consumption of chopsticks, as well. Japan uses about 25.7 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, an average of about 200 pairs per person, but the country only produces about 3% of that with the rest coming principally from China. China exports about half of its chopsticks (paywall) to Japan, South Korea, and the United States.

With its shrinking supply of natural forests, Chinese officials realize the country can’t sustain its current path of chopstick manufacturing. In 2006, the government put a 5% tax on disposable chopsticks that would hit manufacturers, and campaigns have been launched by environmental groups to latch onto growing environmental concern in the country. It’s not impossible for China to make sweeping changes to its residents’ consumption habits: In 2008, the government banned free plastic bags with relative success. It’s just that, in this case, the problem is outside of China’s borders as well as within.