December 31, 2006


Giving Disposable Chopsticks a Life Cycle

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.52 (December 2006)

Japanese people eat with chopsticks, and most chopsticks used in Japan are made of wood. Chopsticks are also used in South Korea, North Korea, China, and Viet Nam, while in Southeast Asia they are normally used only for eating noodles.

Japanese food culture and chopsticks are inseparable. Most Japanese people have their own personal pair of lacquered chopsticks at home that are washed and reused like cutlery. However, when we eat out or buy cold boxed rice lunches, we usually use the disposable chopsticks provided and throw them away after use.

Disposable chopsticks are said to be unique to Japan, and are thought to have appeared 300 to 400 years ago during the Edo period, when buckwheat noodle shopkeepers introduced them for sanitary reasons. Today about 25 billion pairs of these chopsticks are used annually in Japan - about 200 pairs per capita.

Disposable chopsticks have become controversial as a symbol of throwaway culture and a cause of deforestation, and various efforts have been made to deal with these problems. Approaches include;
(1) creating chopsticks that don't damage forests, but in fact function to protect forests;
(2) recycling used disposable chopsticks into paper and particleboard;
(3) carrying one's own chopsticks to use rather than disposable chopsticks when eating out - the so-called "My Chopsticks" movement.

Disposable Chopsticks Made of Domestic Tree Plantation Thinnings

About 96 percent of the disposable chopsticks consumed in Japan originate in other countries. As imports increased rapidly in the late 1980s, domestic production of disposable chopsticks decreased drastically. Of imported disposable chopsticks, 98 percent are from China, and the rest are from Indonesia, other Southeast Asian countries and Chile in South America.

Domestically produced disposable chopsticks are mainly made of lumber remnants. In the spirit of "mottai-nai," or "waste not want not," these small pieces of wood, which otherwise may be discarded, are turned into products. However, in general Japanese domestic lumber doesn't sell well under the pressure of cheap foreign lumber, and more and more of its tree plantations are under-maintained or completely abandoned. One result is that floods and mudslides are occurring more frequently, raising concerns about the weakened water-retaining capacity of mountainsides and disaster control. Using small-diameter logs thinned from tree plantations as a raw material for disposable chopsticks would contribute to protecting Japan's steep mountain forests.

Under these circumstances, more and more restaurants have started using domestic chopsticks. One of the first groups to tackle this issue was a non-profit organization, the JUON Network, which worked to promote the use of disposable chopsticks from domestic plantation thinnings. This network was established by an alliance of university co-ops and encourages co-op stores and cafeterias at universities to adopt chopsticks made of local thinnings. The chopsticks are manufactured by people living at facilities for the mentally retarded, one in Tokushima prefecture, SELP Hashikura (SELP standing for Support for Employment, Living and Participation), and another in Saitama prefecture, Konan Ai-no-Ie. The network consists of about 70 universities and consumed 7.5 million pairs of these chopsticks in 2005. Although they are more expensive than chopsticks made in China, the number of participating universities is increasing due to their progressive image of helping protect forests and create jobs for the disabled.

Recycling Used Chopsticks

There has also been a widespread movement among local governments, shopping districts, chambers of commerce and industry, etc., to collect used chopsticks and send them to paper mills, where they are recycled to make paper. For example, a children's meeting for recycling disposable chopsticks was recently held in Kagawa Prefecture, the home of a well-known variety of Japanese noodles, "Sanuki Udon." One unique feature of this event was that the entry fee was six used disposable chopsticks.
"Children's Summit for Disposable Wooden Chopstick' Held in Home of Japanese Noodles"

The Yonago Mill of Oji Paper Co., a major Japanese paper manufacturer, made the first effort to use chopsticks as a raw material for paper manufacturing in 1992. Chopsticks sent in or collected from all over the country are mixed in with wood chips to produce paper.

This effort was initiated by a child. In 1992, Mr. Tetsuro Mukai, in charge of environmental activities at the paper mill in Tottori Prefecture, gave a plant tour to school children and explained how to paper is manufactured. During the tour, a student asked, "Chopsticks are also made of wood, aren't they?" This awoke Mr. Mukai to the fact that chopsticks could be a raw material for paper. With the help of local children on weekends, he started to collect used chopsticks and bring them to the mill. He then needed to figure out how to recycle wooden chopsticks, which are longer than wood chips. After three years of trial and error, he successfully developed a crushing machine for chopsticks in collaboration with a machine manufacturer and built up a regional collection system that started to function in November 1995.

An increasing number of schools, companies and other organizations in Tottori prefecture are now collecting chopsticks. For example, every three months, the Tottori Prefectural Government sends a large bus loaded with chopsticks to the mill. At present, the Yonago Mill receives more than 10 tons of used chopsticks every month. Because chopsticks were being sent in from around the country, the company expanded the recycling system to a total of 11 mills including affiliated businesses participate in the system by now.

There are also efforts to recycle chopsticks into other materials. A particleboard maker, Onahama Plywood Co., formerly used wood imported from Southeast Asia and other areas, but now only uses chips made from wood waste generated from house and building demolition, together with used disposable chopsticks processed by a special shredder. It started collecting used disposable chopsticks in September 1998, after making sure that mixing chopstick chips with other raw materials would not lower product quality. Now it receives chopsticks from about 25 organizations, including universities and citizens' groups. Some of the university co-ops that use domestically produced chopsticks made from tree plantation thinnings also participate in this recycling system.

Thus, there are university co-ops, companies and citizens' groups choosing to buy chopsticks made from domestic thinnings rather than cheap imports, and that also send in used chopsticks for recycling. There are also companies that make useful products from used chopsticks. The understanding and determination of participants has given rise to these cooperative systems, which aim to protect forests and achieve outcomes consistent with the spirit of "waste not, want not."

Finally, let's take a look at the "My Chopsticks" movement, which encourages people to bring their own chopsticks when eating out. A gradually increasing number of people are eager to do anything they can for the environment and carry their regular chopsticks with them so they can decline to use disposable ones when eating out. Since October 2005, in Takamatsu City, Kagawa Prefecture, many specially designated restaurants give favors such as a free cup of coffee or an extra side dish to customers who use their own chopsticks.
Takamatsu City Shops Encourage Customers to Carry Chopsticks, Protect Forests

The old idea in Japan was that people should not reuse chopsticks because the chopsticks lose their original divine power after a single use. In the past, discarded chopsticks were returned to the earth, but they are now regarded as a waste material with adverse effects on the environment when burnt or buried. When recycled, chopsticks can "come back to life" as paper, particleboard and the like. Three pairs of disposable chopsticks can produce a postcard, and 100 pairs one copy of a weekly magazine. If all of the 25 billion pairs consumed annually in Japan were used to make paper, 180 million boxes of tissue paper could be produced.

In the near future it will be difficult to continue importing disposable chopsticks from China. The price of imported chopsticks has already started to rise dramatically. Thus, it is important now to stop using disposable chopsticks in favor of regular chopsticks. Even in cases where using disposable chopsticks is unavoidable, it is still desirable to try to use those made from domestic plantation thinnings rather than imports, which are produced by damaging forests in other countries. Also, used chopsticks should not be discarded as garbage but recycled to produce pulp, reducing the amount of imported wood chips.

This September JFS received an inquiry from Britain about recycling disposable chopsticks in Japan; apparently attention is also being paid to this aspect of Japanese culture by people in countries far away.

(Written by Junko Edahiro and Kazuko Futakuchi)