There is some debate over the number of disposable chopsticks used and how many trees their production destroys. The most recent government estimate (2009) is that 57 billion pairs are used in China each year, resulting in the destruction of 3.8 million trees.
More recently Bo Guangxin, the chairman of the Jilin Forest Industry, estimated that 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are produced each year, destroying up to 20 million 20-year-old trees—that’s enough chopsticks to fill Tiananmen Square 360 times.
The sources for his final figures aren’t clear, but many believe that the larger figure is likely to be more accurate due to small and street food vendors, who aren’t counted in government data.
Whichever figure is correct, Greenpeace China estimates that to keep up with demand about 100 acres of trees need to be felled every 24 hours, amounting to between 16 and 25 million trees per year.
Half the chopsticks produced are used within China, and the other half is exported. 21% of the exported chopsticks head to Korea, 2% to the USA, and a whopping 77% to Japan, who use 25.7 billion pairs per year—only 3% of which do they produce themselves.
Consumption is set to increase in western countries too, as demand for Asian food rises. While countries such as the USA and Canada do produce their own disposable chopsticks, the majority are produced in China and Asian forests are suffering the consequences.
Further, about 45% of chopsticks are made from cottonwood, birch, and spruce, and the other 55% from bamboo. While bamboo is a highly renewable and sustainable material (especially when properly managed) and takes just a few months to grow to full size it can take up to 20 years for trees such as birch and spruce.
Due to their destructive nature, the Chinese government did introduce a tax on disposable wooden chopsticks in 2006. However, this did not decrease demand and consumers instead relied on other South Asian suppliers such as Vietnam and Indonesia, thus simply shifting the problem of deforestation rather than solving it.
The Problem of Deforestation
According to a 2008 UN report, 10,800 square miles of Asian forests are disappearing each year, an amount to which disposable chopsticks were already a not-insignificant contributor. Since 2008, demand has only increased.
The effects of deforestation on greenhouse gas emissions and climate change are well known, but these are far from the only consequences.
Deforestation also leads to soil erosion, ecosystem destruction, and can lead to life-endangering famine and drought which endanger human and animal lives. It also causes severe soil erosion, which can and does result in deadly landslides such as the one which occurred in Zhouqu, China in 2010, killing over 700 people.
Deforestation Isn’t the Only Negative Factor in Our Disposable Chopstick Addiction
As well as contributing to deforestation, the production process of disposable chopsticks is carbon-intensive due not only to the wood needed but to the sourcing of other production materials, including chemicals, involved.
Production processes are also energy-intensive, and the carbon footprint of the humble chopstick only increases when packaging and global shipping are factored in.
Chopsticks are environmentally damaging at the other end of their lifecycle as well. The production process involves boiling in a chemical solution to create a consistent texture and color, and high-grade chemicals including paraffin (a known carcinogen), sulfur dioxide, and some insect repellents have been widely found in disposable chopsticks.
These are not only harmful to human health, but they contribute to the contamination of soil and groundwater when they are disposed of as well.
Even non-disposable chopsticks can have their dangers. Over time and with repeated exposure to water through washing, wooden chopsticks are liable to rot. Since there is nothing preventing water from seeping into the material, over time bacteria grows and causes the wood to decompose.
In an effort to prolong their product’s life, some chopstick vendors cover the utensils with a thin layer of edible paint which acts as a lacquer, initially preventing water from entering the wood —however, this paint is not durable and after a short time, it starts to chip off and crack, leaving the wood exposed to water and air and beginning the rotting process.
If you want to move to reusable chopsticks, it’s worth buying ones that will last rather than attractively cheap painted ones.
There are also wooden chopsticks where the wood itself has been dyed. Similar to the toxic chemicals that are used in the production process of disposable chopsticks, these can be toxic to the environment and to your health. Unless you actually eat your utensils, it probably won’t do you any significant harm, but over time repeated exposure is best avoided.
It is important to distinguish between the undesirable colored chopsticks mentioned above and beautifully decorated options. Quality reusable chopsticks are often decorated, but this is usually done in a lacquer (i.e. it sits on top of the wood, rather than being soaked in) and almost universally only at the handle end so it doesn’t touch the food or your mouth. It will also be properly sealed, and so it won’t flake off and leave the wood underneath exposed.
The benefits of Reusable Cutlery
None of this, however, means you’re going to need to give up your sushi habit or forgo your weekly Chinese takeout. Like most things, there’s an easy sustainable swap you can make and that is to buy yourself some reusable chopsticks. There are so many options out there you’ll easily find some to suit your style, they’re lightweight, and as well as being better for the planet they’re better for your health. There are some nasty chemicals involved in making disposable chopsticks, not to mention all those pesky splinters.
As with many sustainable products, the market is pretty saturated—so we’ve done some of the work for you and found the best selection of reusable chopsticks we could. Happy sushi!
8 of Our Favorite Reusable Chopsticks
This cheerfully priced set of 5 chopsticks has a fun and colorful striped design in five different colors (one for every workday?). As well as being aesthetically lovely, the striped design is lightly textured for easy gripping.
The tips of these chopsticks also have a ringed design, meaning that there are grooves in the wood which make gripping your food much easier - these are ideal chopsticks for even a beginner to use, or even for a veteran chopstick fan who just loves slippery foods like ramen and pho.
These boutique chopsticks are not dishwasher safe so they do need handwashing, but it’s easy to do so - and with 5 sets to choose from, you will always be able to whip out a clean set to take out with you if you haven’t got time to hand wash your set from yesterday.
These sleek chopsticks made from sustainably harvested ebony have a stylish, modern feel to them that would place them right at home in any classy handbag or upmarket restaurant - in fact, they are the chopstick of choice at a 3 Michelin star restaurant in San Francisco.
Although perfectly suited to the modern aesthetic with its geometric, minimalist design each hand-carved pair actually follows the traditional Chinese design of a square-shaped, grippable handle and circular non-tapered points. So if you’re torn between corporate couture and traditional oriental - this is the pair for you.
To keep them in good condition, these ebony chopsticks need handwashing.
Ideal for anyone living a busy lifestyle where convenience is everything, this set of 5 durable fiberglass chopstick pairs is dishwasher safe and very long-lasting. The material also complies with global food contact standards, so you can feel secure eating.
Much lighter than metal, these chopsticks are also ideal for taking on the commute or on a hike. They also feature a grippy-tip design and square handle for easy use.
Finally, the stylish monochrome design options make these sleek chopsticks a classy and timeless option.
In the light natural color of bamboo, this incredibly lightweight and minimal option is highly sustainable. Bamboo is a very renewable and sustainable material as it regrows within only a few months and requires no harmful pesticides or chemicals to harvest, meaning no soil contamination.
This bamboo option is also USDA-certified organic, meaning you can rest safe in the knowledge that no unnecessary environmental harm was caused. They’re also USDA-certified biobased - which means they contain a guaranteed amount of renewable, biobased materials.
Hand-burnished to a naturally smooth and splinter-free finish, these bamboo chopsticks are very lightweight and sturdy and fantastic for commuting or traveling. They do require handwashing.
60% lighter than stainless steel, these extra strong, extra lightweight titanium chopsticks come with a free aluminum case in a selection of colors for safe carrying.
Titanium is a bacteria-inhibiting material making these super hygienic, and it’s also FDA food-grade, odor and taste-free, and non-corrosive. As well as being super healthy, this also means they’re incredibly easy to keep clean and super long-lasting, and hard-wearing.
A convenient dishwasher-safe option (and not just home dishwasher - commercial dishwasher), these black melamine chopsticks are BPA-free, hard-wearing, and very lightweight. Melamine is a base used to create a durable thermosetting plastic that is long-lasting and very easy to clean.
With an easy-grip hexagonal-shaped handle, textured tip to increase grip on food, and smooth design, these are easy to use and convenient to clean. These chopsticks are also great on a budget - and if you are interested in buying more than one set, the vendor offers discounts for bulk purchases.
If you’re looking for something more elegant, this decorated food-grade fiberglass family set of chopsticks. They feature a beautiful oriental flower design at the handle tip, each pair in a different pearlescent hue, and an elegant fluted handle design for easy grip.
This lovely matching set contains 5 pairs perfect for a cozy takeaway night in or a fancy dinner party. Fiberglass is also a very lightweight material, so if you do want a slightly more glamorous option for portable daily use these will be perfect.
They also feature grippy tips so food doesn’t easily slip between them, and their traditional oriental style is a really beautiful addition to any cutlery drawer.
Unique on this list as they’re specifically designed for compact carry during traveling. With a collapsible body made of stainless steel attached to hardwood tips, these handy chopsticks collapse to about 5 inches high, reaching 10 at full length.
They also come with a free travel case which has a clip for easy storage and carrying, making them ideal for daily travel such as a commute or for taking on longer trips such as hikes or holidays. They have tapered tips for easy use, and despite their collapsible structure, they’re easy to keep clean.
Like many things, moving towards sustainability is actually very easy. Whether you need a convenient dishwasher safe option or are looking for something a little more artistic, we hope one of our top chopstick picks is right for you.