Earth First

The Environmental Impact of Disposable Chopsticks

Single-use utensils like disposable chopsticks are convenient, but they come at a cost to the environment. Making them exacerbates deforestation and disposing of them pollutes landfills. Here are a few reasons to consider getting your own permanent pair of chopsticks.

Disposable chopsticks have been around since the late 19th century when construction workers in Japan would use wooden twigs to eat their meals before throwing them away.1 Today, you will meet the modern iteration of this invention at a sushi counter—the snap-apart kind, tucked in a paper sleeve. And demand for them is only growing, with nearly 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks being produced each year in China—that’s roughly 10 pairs for every person in the world.2 

In most parts of the world, these cheaply made utensils are favoured over a sturdy pair of proper chopsticks, mostly because they’re cheap, convenient, and hygienic. Unfortunately, as with almost all single-use items, making and using disposable chopsticks in abundance is a strain on our natural resources both when they’re produced and after they’re discarded.

Nearly 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are produced yearly in China. In Asia and the West, disposable chopsticks are the standard utensil when eating at an Asian cuisine establishment.

Deforestation & biodiversity loss

If you’ve ever broken apart a pair of disposable chopsticks, you’ll know they are made from wood — mainly bamboo, birch, poplar, spruce and cottonwood.3 Some of these tree species are from fast-growing forests, but most of the 20 million trees that are cut down in China each year for this purpose are actually from mature groves that grow over two decades.

China, as the main producer of single-use chopsticks, has seen huge losses in natural forestry they are now working to offset production impacts with major afforestation and reforestation programmes. While these are important efforts, it’s important to realise that just replacing felled trees by planting new ones in a different area, does not fully offset the biodiversity loss that happens when long-standing trees are cut down.5 Many crucial tree species take decades to grow and mature in their environment, and in doing so, provide certain ecosystem functions that younger, fast-growing trees do not.

Trees also hold the ground together with their extensive root systems, preventing soil from erosion and landslides—an occurrence that’s happening more frequently in places where deforestation is rampant. So, even if we replace all the trees that are cut down to make throwaway chopsticks, we cannot fully replace the interconnected relationships between species that keep an ecosystem running while we wait for new forests to grow. 

The toxicity of single-use chopsticks 

Disposable chopsticks go through a process of treatment during manufacture that usually involves chemicals like paraffin, hydrogen peroxide, and sulphur. These treatments bleach the wood to make all the chopsticks look uniform, while also preventing mould from growing on the chopsticks even if they’re stored for long periods of time.7 Unfortunately, these treatments also make single-use chopsticks non-biodegradable, so they usually end up in landfills or are incinerated after they are discarded.

When non-biodegradable food packaging like single-use chopsticks are not disposed of properly, they can end up polluting land and ocean ecosystems, and endangering wildlife. With an overabundance of waste, cities are also running out of landfill space to safely store trash, leading to a rise in illegal dumping and open burning.9,10 When it comes to chemically treated products like throwaway chopsticks, proper incineration is crucial to prevent potentially toxic emissions from escaping into the air. If this waste is burned openly, it may be causing even more air pollution than we realise since these emissions aren’t officially recorded.11

This issue of increasing waste has not gone unnoticed. Scientists are looking into using disposable chopstick waste to create green composites by adding these bamboo fibres to biodegradable plastics.13 Others have even found a way to use this waste to produce sustainable electrodes for batteries.14 Perhaps used chopsticks may even become a solid biofuel that reduces our need for coal!15 It’s exciting to consider the possibilities, but we’re still a long way off from having a scalable means of dealing with the waste from these utensils.

Avoid reusing single-use chopsticks

If throwing them out is the problem, then what if you use disposable chopsticks more than once? Well, cheap wooden chopsticks are not made to be used multiple times—they can break or splinter much more easily than proper chopsticks. Aside from that, a handful of small studies seem to suggest that, under certain circumstances, unwanted substances may leach out of single-use chopsticks, and that this happens at levels that can be unsafe for consumption.12

There is probably nothing to worry about if you’re using disposable chopsticks to eat a quick meal, but it’s not advised to keep reusing them over a long period of time. These chopsticks are not designed to be reused, and the health impacts from long-term use have not been thoroughly studied.

Reusable chopsticks come in many varieties, depending on the culture and style of eating they are intended for.

Use your own pair of reusable chopsticks

Instead, why not pick up a pair of reusable chopsticks for all your eating needs? If you’re eating at home, it’s easy to ditch the flimsy break-apart chopsticks for a sturdier pair that you can later wash and reuse; they come in wooden, metal, or plastic varieties to suit your preference and skill. For picnics or eating out, you can carry a pair of travel chopsticks that fit nicely in a portable case or bag. 

Single-use chopsticks are undeniably convenient, but the trade-off doesn’t seem worth it when you consider the negative effects their manufacture and disposal have on the environment. 

Glossary definitions:

Afforestation: The process of planting trees in an area that has not been previously forested

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