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Reports

China's Chopsticks Crusade

[The Washington Post, February 6, 2001.]

Drive Against Disposables Feeds Environmental Movement

Washington Post Foreign Service

Tuesday, February 6, 2001; Page A01

BEIJING -- To millions of Chinese, they are the most ordinary of eating utensils, two humble splints of wood, eight to 10 inches long, designed to be snapped apart before use and discarded after a meal as casually as a half-eaten fortune cookie.

But to people like Kang Dahu, disposable chopsticks are a menace, a symbol of all that is wrong with the way China treats the environment. During dinner at one of his favorite restaurants recently, the truck driver surprised the waitress by pulling out a personal set of chopsticks that he washes after every meal and carries wherever he goes in a little cloth bag.

"The disposable ones are such a waste! We're destroying what little is left of our forests to make them," said Kang, 22, who does volunteer work with several environmental groups. "Just imagine, years from now, when my grandchildren ask me what happened to all of China's trees, I'll have to say, 'We made them into chopsticks.' Isn't that pitiful?"

Cheap, convenient and as ubiquitous as bowls of rice, disposable chopsticks have become the utensils that Chinese environmentalists love to hate. Middle school children have written letters to Premier Zhu Rongji asking him to ban them. College students have persuaded campus cafeterias to replace them with spoons. Informal groups of Internet users have organized to distribute chopstick pouches so people can carry and reuse them, and some of China's pop singers have enlisted in the cause.

The campaign underscores the vitality of China's fledgling environmental movement, a ragtag collection of groups and individuals who operate in a gray area outside state control but never entirely free from it. It suggests that even as the ruling Communist Party tries to stifle unsanctioned organized activity, limited grass-roots activism in China has a place -- and that it can sometimes influence the government.

More than 100 state-owned restaurants in Beijing vowed this month to "go green" and start washing and reusing chopsticks. Shanghai and other cities are considering a partial ban on "one-time" chopsticks, as the disposable utensils are called. And the Finance Ministry is reportedly preparing a new tax on throwaway chopsticks to discourage their use.

Whether the government is truly responding to pressure from environmentalists is debatable. But the chopstick activism demonstrates a changing sense of the individual's relationship with the state, one that demands initiative, responsibility and participation from citizens.

Just two decades ago, the government controlled nearly all aspects of people's lives, from jobs to housing to education. But as China changes, "people are beginning to think deeply and independently, instead of just accepting what the government or society tells them," said Zhang Zhe, 24, who works for an environmental education group supported by British zoologist Jane Goodall. "Chopsticks are just an example. People are beginning to ponder even ordinary things."

Zhang began thinking about the environment as a child in the northeastern industrial city of Benxi. (A 1998 World Health Organization study found China had seven of the world's 10 most polluted cities.) She recalls being taught about the constellations in elementary school, then wondering why she could never see more than a few stars in the sky. "There was a steel factory in town, one of China's largest, and the sky was always gray," she said. "I never saw a blue sky growing up."

But it was not until college that Zhang concluded that she individually could make a difference. During a bicycle trip from Beijing to Shanghai, she insisted on gathering litter left behind by her traveling companions, until, eventually, they were shamed into picking up after themselves. Later, she helped start a student group dubbed the Green Volunteers. It had just five members at first, all of whom carried their own spoons and chopsticks. By the time she graduated, there were 200 Green Volunteers, and they had persuaded the school cafeterias to stop using disposable chopsticks.

"In the beginning, my classmates thought I was strange, and they would stare, but then we convinced them it was the right thing to do," said Zhang, who carries around a pair of stainless steel chopsticks in a cotton bag.

At Beijing's prestigious Qinghua University, students recently persuaded cafeteria officials to replace disposable chopsticks with plastic spoons that can be recycled. But other students complained because they weren't accustomed to the thin spoons and often cut their mouths on the sharp edges. And forget about forks.

Disposable chopsticks still come with orders of noodles. "You can't eat noodles with spoons," said Lei Yu, 20, one of the Qinghua activists. "We had to compromise."

Chopsticks have been China's primary eating tool since at least the Shang dynasty, which began around 1500 B.C., and they are the subject of countless folk tales. Traditionally, they are carved from bamboo, cedar, sandalwood, teak or pine, but the emperors favored silver ones, believing that they would turn black in the presence of poison.

It was only in the mid-1980s that disposable chopsticks, mass-produced from birch or poplar, appeared in China, long after Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong had begun using them. The Chinese government promoted their use to fight communicable disease and, at one point, required restaurants in various cities to use them.

The chopsticks gained in popularity as market reforms fueled an economic boom in China. Higher incomes and busier lifestyles meant more people eating out, more restaurants -- and more chopsticks. The reforms also spurred millions of peasants to move to the cities; these migrants often survive on take-out meals sold in Styrofoam boxes -- each with a pair of one-time chopsticks.

China now produces and discards more than 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, cutting down as many as 25 million trees in the process, according to government statistics. Another 15 billion pairs are exported to Japan, South Korea and other countries. At the current rate of timber use, environmentalists warn, China will consume its remaining forests in about a decade.

The problem began seeping into the popular consciousness in the mid-1990s, as unsightly piles of Styrofoam boxes began appearing along roads and rail lines. People complained as plastic bags hung from trees like fruit and chopsticks littered the ground. Then, destructive floods in 1998 were blamed on deforestation and brought concern about disposable chopsticks to a peak.

Other Asian nations have struggled with disposable chopsticks, too. Nature lovers have singled out Japan for criticism because most of the 25 billion pairs it uses annually are made from other countries' trees. But South Korea has largely switched to metal chopsticks, banning the use of disposable ones six years ago in all restaurants of a certain size.

Liang Congjie, one of the most prominent environmentalists here, said no one expects the chopsticks crusade to solve China's environmental problems. "But it shows that some people are beginning to realize their consumer habits have an impact on the environment -- and that's a start."


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