Chopsticks Tax to Target China's Hunger for Timber

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 22, 2006
China's growing appetite for timber has prompted a 5 percent tax on
disposable wooden chopsticks—a move designed to protect China's
vanishing forests.

The chopstick tax is part of a broader package of consumption taxes aimed at protecting the environment and narrowing China's income gap. Targets include golf clubs, imported watches, solvents, wooden floorboards, cars with poor emissions scores, and yachts.

The new taxes will go into effect on April 1, the state-run Xinhua News Agency announced.

45 Billion Served

Chinese diners currently use and discard some 45 billion pairs of chopsticks each year. The eat-and-toss process consumes more than 70 million cubic feet (2 million cubic meters) of timber annually, according to the Chinese finance ministry.

China (map) also exports chopsticks—an additional 15 billion pairs annually to Japan and South Korea alone, according to Zou Hanru, a columnist at the state-run China Daily English language newspaper.

The demand for the utensils fuels an industry that sends millions of poplar, birch, and bamboo trees to the sawmill each year and employs about 60,000 workers, Zou writes.

Green Plate Special

China's fledgling environmental movement has targeted throwaway chopsticks for several years.

College students have petitioned campus cafeterias to replace them, and schoolchildren have written to Premier Zhu Rongji asking that the utensils be banned. Pop singers and other celebrities have lent their weight to the conservation campaign.

China's forests have disappeared at an alarming rate, and environmentalists warn that the populous nation's timber appetite has led to devastating clear-cut logging in Southeast Asian nations such as Myanmar (Burma) and Indonesia.

Health Risk?

The Chinese government once promoted the use of disposable chopsticks as a way to improve health conditions. If the policy flip-flop is successful, some medical challenges could reappear.

"Hepatitis is a problem. A lot of restaurants in China today are just small places that don't necessarily have dishwashers or even a lot of access to hot water," said Jennifer Turner, coordinator of the China Environment Forum at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

"There's a hygiene question, and that's a toughie," Turner said.

"In addition to the tax, maybe they also need to introduce a campaign, as [Chinese nongovernmental organization] Friends of Nature has, where people are encouraged to carry their own chopsticks," she added.

"Maybe that sounds kind of dopey, but I think that they may need that kind of campaign as well if they want to give people an alternative."

BBC journalists reported mixed feedback Wednesday from the streets and restaurants of Shanghai.

"It's no use, people will still throw it everywhere after they have their food, and people will still buy disposable chopsticks," one person told the BBC.

Another consumer had a more positive outlook: "It has some good impact. It will make people buy less disposable products and buy more durable ones."

Still another Shanghai citizen wondered who would foot the bill. "I think the shop owner should pay for it," he told the BBC.

It seems likely that many small restaurant owners will pass the added cost on to their customers.

China's growing middle class certainly won't balk at the modest extra expense, but the tax's greatest value could lie in environmental education.

"It's good that the campaign is raising awareness about China's timber problem," the Wilson center's Turner said.

"Chinese citizens, like many of us, do need to be better educated about the environment."

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