Ecofriendly or not Disposable chopsticks still have a place

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Arguments have raged for years in Japan about the merits of disposable wooden chopsticks, a mainstay of restaurants and ready-made boxed bento meals sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.

Japan gets through billions of pairs of throwaway “waribashi” chopsticks each year, and that amounts to a mountain of waste.

And that’s not even taking arguments into account about whether the practice is environmentally friendly or not.

Last year, Japan imported 13.8 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks, mainly from China. That amounted to just over half of the peak figure reached in the mid-2000s.

The decrease was primarily due to a shift in using chopsticks made of synthetic resin and a growing number of people bringing chopsticks from home when they eat out, partly for reasons of hygiene and also concern about damaging the environment.

Another factor stemmed from a sharp drop in people going to restaurants as government COVID-19 restrictions started to bite.

More than 80 percent of imported disposable chopsticks currently come from China, according to Finance Ministry trade statistics. Vietnam accounts for most of the rest.

Figures show that chopstick imports decreased after peaking in 2005 at 25.4 billion pairs. In 2020, as restaurants cut back on opening hours due to the pandemic, the figure dropped significantly to 14.2 billion pairs from 17.1 billion pairs in the previous year.

Records for the number of disposable pairs of chopsticks produced in Japan have not been kept since 2010, when 550 million pairs were of domestic origin, according to the Forestry Agency.

The nation’s major production centers include the Yoshino area in Nara Prefecture, where chopsticks are fashioned from remnants of lumber after being used to create boards or pillars.

The number of disposable chopsticks produced domestically has fallen since 2010 in the face of cheap imports.

Arguments for and against disposable chopsticks began to rage in the 1990s and 2000s with critics contending they generated a massive amount of waste and led to deforestation.

Others, however, staunchly defended the throwaway utensils on grounds only a relatively small amount of lumber was required for the purpose.

They also argued that disposable chopsticks encouraged sustainable use of woodland as part of a forest management practice known as thinning.

The controversy spurred many people to start using “my chopsticks,” which they took with them to use when eating out, instead of disposable ones. In addition, more businesses began using chopsticks made of synthetic resin, not simply to be eco-friendly but also to reduce costs.


A team led by Masafumi Inoue, a professor of sustainable material design at the Graduate School of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Tokyo, made a study five years ago to compare the lifecycle carbon emission of disposable chopsticks and those made of synthetic resin, from logging of trees, to washing and disposing of the eating utensils.

His team found that the process of domestically producing disposable wooden chopsticks using lumber remnants emitted the least amount of greenhouse gas compared with ones made in Japan from trees felled in forest thinning and synthetic resin, respectively. Chinese-made disposable chopsticks produced the highest amount of greenhouse gas due to factors such as transport emission, the study found.

“Global warming is not all you have to think about because there is other environmental damage, such as that caused by the use of detergents (to wash the utensils),” Inoue said. “So the pros and cons of using disposable chopsticks can be looked at from a range of angles.”

He says that one pair of disposable wooden chopsticks produces enough pulp to produce two sheets of tissue paper.

“It is not easy to come to a conclusion about what product wastes more resources,” he added.

A street in the Nishi-Asakusa district in Tokyo’s Taito Ward called Kappabashi Dougu has a cluster of outlets catering to the food industry.

One of them, Hashitou Honten, sells disposable chopsticks of every kind, both domestic and foreign, including luxurious ones for upscale “ryotei” Japanese-style restaurants, along with lacquered non-disposable chopsticks.

“People choose imported disposable chopsticks if their priority lies in buying a large amount of them,” noted Yasunari Uenaka, its CEO. “Some disposable chopsticks from China are of decent quality. At the same time, an increasing number of people are opting for domestically made disposable chopsticks by taking the environment and other factors into consideration.”

His conclusion? Disposable chopsticks have a place on dining tables across Japan, whether they are made domestically or imported.