Long-life chopsticks?

According to this piece in the Los Angeles Times, Greenpeace China estimates that 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours to keep up with Chinese demand for disposable chopsticks. The article says the Chinese government is so concerned at the waste that it’s trying to clamp down on their use – although with little effect so far. As anyone who has lived in China will know, many Chinese people are becoming obsessed with hygiene – it’s one of the reasons that middle-class parents prefer buying their children packaged snacks in Walmart to  old-fashioned street snacks sold by itinerant vendors. Now that everyone expects restaurants to supply either disposable chopsticks (made of wood or bamboo) or those that have been properly sterilised, it’s hard to go back to the old days when many small eateries would simply have a potful of reusable wooden chopsticks on each table.

Perhaps the solution is to revive the old Manchu and Mongolian habit of carrying around a personal set of chopsticks and other implements. The one pictured on left and right, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, is a rather fine ornament that can be attached to a belt, and it contains not only a pair of bone chopsticks, a knife and a file for sharpening, but also (not pictured) a tiny bone toothpick and an ear scoop! Of course the set pictured is rather elaborate and unnecessarily heavy, but imagine a funky, well-designed set of chopsticks in a little holder you could slip into your handbag…  (Actually, I remember on my very first trip to China, and indeed to Asia at all, I carried round my own pair of plastic chopsticks because I was paranoid about hygiene, and just rinsed them after use.)

And talking of reusing things rather than chucking them away, every time I see people drinking coffee out of those incredibly wasteful cardboard cups with plastic tops, I remember a restaurant kitchen in Shaoxing where every chef had a metal tea mug which was stored on a shelved labelled with everyone’s names (see picture below). Why don’t we all do this in our offices?

(P.S. thanks to @taniabranigan and @raykwong for drawing my attention to the LA Times piece on Twitter…)

16 Responses to “Long-life chopsticks?”

  1. Zoe

    We’re big on the re-using things. These “keepcups” are popping up everywhere in Australia and I love mine – feels weird on the odd occasion I buy a coffee and don’t have it with me. (No connection, just a happy customer.)

  2. Adam Liaw

    During my 6 years in Japan I carried chopsticks with me everywhere, including on my near-monthly trips to work and visit my mother China.

    In Japan, although more and more people are favouring bringing their own chopsticks, it is still far from common. However, when I would pull my chopsticks out of my bag in China people looked at me like I was a crazy person!

    BTW, Fuschia, I am a HUGE fan of yours.

  3. Alex

    Carrying around your own chopsticks is a great idea. I’ve coveted the camping chopsticks made by Snow Peak in Japan for a long time:
    http://www.outlandusa.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=SNOWSCT-103
    and here are some other ones:
    http://www.backcountrygear.com/catalog/accessdetail.cfm?PRODUCTS__ProductID=MTB11&code=GF11
    http://www.gearbuyer.com/products/evernew_ultralight_spork_chopsticks.html

    As for mugs, yes, everyone should do that. In fact, if all you drink is Chinese tea, you don’t even really need to wash the mug, just rinse it every once in a while.

  4. Brendan

    Interesting post – some restaurants I used to eat at in China had both disposable and reusable chopsticks available for you to choose, but put a sign on the disposable chopsticks bin saying something like “did you know 40 trillion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used every year” in an attempt to change peoples minds. 100 acres of trees per day is a ridiculous number, though.

  5. Ryan

    The very cool Muji stores carry very neat foldable travellers’ chopsticks for around RMB100 (8GBP).

  6. Rob

    Ditto,

    I’ve been carrying around a pair of fold-able chop sticks for quite some time and people think it is quite funny. Picked them up at MEC.CA if other Canadians are wanting to know.

    By the way, I’ve been reading Shark Fin’s… and have been really enjoying it. Thanks for a great read.

  7. Eric Havaby

    I bought a pair today. They came in a nice little metal box. Two chopsticks (in two sections each which screw together) a teaspoon and a little fork. ¥11.80 RMB

  8. Leo

    Very interesting! Here in Korea disposable wooden chopsticks are only for eating instant noodles because (naturally) everyone prefers metal ones!

  9. Sharmila

    When I was in Hunan last year, the translator I was with carried around her own set of chopsticks wherever she went. As much for hygienic, as well as environmental reasons, it seemed.

    Obviously, it’s a long way off the norm (she was the only one!), but would be good to think it starts picking up with younger generations who may be more environmentally aware.

  10. Postercowboy

    Disposable chopsticks are pretty similar to plastic forks and paper cups. Not only are they an environmental disaster, for anything but instant noodles, I prefer proper cutlery.
    This german supplier has a wide range of chopsticks, including several folded ones: http://bit.ly/bMouQT
    Plus, they deliver worldwide.
    Btw, I’m using both your cookbooks on a daily basis and I’m currently enjoying SHARK’S FIN. Great read.

  11. James

    I have carved jade chopsticks I use for guests and a pair of silver chopsticks for myself.

  12. Chinese Books

    When I was in China, I always used to carry a pair of chopsticks around. Not so much for hygenie reasons, more because I thought it was an awful waste when you eat out in cheap places and almost always be offered cheap horrible disposable chopsticks. There is obviously the environmental impact, as well as the fact that disposable chopsticks are not nice. They generally break into much smaller slivers and make it harder to eat. I’d always get people asking why this 老外 was using his own chopsticks and then I’d explain about the environmental impact. In restaurants where non disposable chopsticks were provided, I’d use them.

  13. Eric Rector

    We used the Muji non-foldable chopsticks that come in a beautiful case while touring Xinjiang. They were easy to stow and keep clean.

  14. Tenjo

    If you live in Southern California, 99 Ranch market carries stainless steel chopsticks that needs to be screwed on (about 8 inches in length), and about 4 inches broken down. You can also buy stainless Chinese soup spoons or a 6 inch spoon. It comes with a bag too. All for about $9.00

    The stainless mug with lid, is about $5.00.

    And if you need ones that are plastic, any Japanese market will have those with a holder for about $4.00 – $6.00

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