Chopped trees and chopsticks

10:14, March 26, 2010      

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By Justin Ward

For Americans and other Westerners, environmentalism has a certain chic. It is synonymous with being progressive, modern and conscientious. It is fashionable to drive one’s Smart car to the local café and discuss the imminent environmental apocalypse over a cup of organic fair-trade coffee. To the West, threats to the environment are like horror films. They are scary but distant, like images on a movie screen that can’t really hurt you.

But for those living in China, we experience the destruction of the environment in a much more concrete sense. It is not some T.V. news report that one can turn off at will. It is dust choking your lungs and a haze that blots out the sun. Like many in Beijing, I was alarmed over the weekend to wake up and see the city outside bathed in the orange glow of one of the most massive sandstorms in recent history.

The timing of the storm, which came a little over a week after China’s Tree-planting Day, lent it greater significance. It gave us a grim, highly-visible reminder of the potential environmental calamity of deforestation and desertification. The irony is that while Americans in wealthy cities like San Francisco or Seattle, where people enjoy relatively clean air and water, will pay top-dollar for eco-friendly products, many Chinese will fight their way through a sandstorm to get to a restaurant where they will dine using disposable chopsticks, a well-known cause of deforestation.

The more educated city-dwellers will make the connection between disposable chopsticks and the annual sandstorms that plague China. Some, like one truck-driver who was featured in an Associated Press article, may even bring their own chopsticks to restaurants. However, the noble efforts of the eco-conscious are a mere drop in the bucket. Despite the 2006 tax imposed on disposable chopsticks and efforts to raise awareness about the damage they cause to the environment, they remain as ubiquitous as ever. Several hundreds thousand acres of forest are leveled annually to supply the billions of chopsticks consumed.

The continued wide-spread use of disposable chopstick is evidence that taxes alone are not enough. The fact that, four years after the tax was put into place, disposable chopsticks continue to be prevalent shows that the tax does not provide enough economic disincentive. For many restaurants, disposable chopsticks are still a cheaper alternative to hiring a full-time dishwasher, and for those which do the majority of their business in take-out orders, they are an absolute necessity.

Much of the tax’s effect has been dulled or completely nullified. Either companies have adjusted their prices to keep disposable chopsticks affordable, or restaurants merely pass the costs on to their consumers. In the West, where wealth abounds and environmentalism is so trendy, people are willing to pay more for environmentally-themed products, such as bio-degradable to-go boxes. There is an entire industry to cater to these types because it is a useful marketing ploy that enables companies to jack up prices even if their products do not cost more to produce. But in China, where people aren’t quite as pretentious, economics is the overriding concern for most.

An outright ban of all disposable chopsticks, as some have suggested, would be impractical, not to mention unenforceable. Right now, eco-friendly disposable chopsticks exist, but their cost prevents restaurants from making the switch. For example, a company called Ecota Environmental Technology, Ltd. manufactures biodegradable disposable chopsticks made out of corn starch, but they are more than twice as expensive as their wooden counterparts. Ecota’s chopsticks cost .012 to .028 U.S. dollars per unit, depending on the size of the order, whereas wooden chopsticks from a Dalian-based company only cost between .007 and .008 U.S. dollars.

If the government were to somehow subsidize the producers of the eco-friendly chopsticks while simultaneously levying taxes on manufacturers of wooden ones, the playing field would be leveled. This would enable more restaurants buy corn starch chopsticks in stead. Furthermore, wooden chopstick manufacturers deserve to be taxed more, because their destruction of forests bring huge economic costs to the country as a whole, and taxes can go to help repair the damage they have done.

China must take action against disposable chopsticks and other root causes of deforestation and desertification, lest the country be left in the dust, or sand, in this case.

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