A Green Tax Triumph
China Introduces Tax on Disposable Chopsticks
Here are portions of an article appearing in the Independent (UK).
by Clifford CoonanChina's appetite for disposable chopsticks eats up 25 million trees each year. With forests fast disappearing, now the pressure is on for people to adopt less wasteful eating habits.
The burly diner in the dumpling restaurant peers at a copy of Beijing News, tears open a paper packet and slides out a pair of wooden chopsticks. In a scene repeated millions of times every day all over China, he snaps apart the sticks, joined at the end, and uses the utensils to manoeuvre a steaming meat dumpling into his mouth.
When he's finished eating, a waitress empties the scraps and the chopsticks into a black plastic bag. It joins dozens of other bags of chopsticks and waste food out at the back of the restaurant.
Disposable chopsticks in China are convenient, hygienic and everywhere. And they are incredibly wasteful - environmentalists say they are up there with plastic carrier bags, individual mini-cheeses and clear plastic CD cases.
The Chinese use 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, which adds up to 1.7 million cubic metres of timber or 25 million full-grown trees, which means badly depleted forests.
China is the world's largest maker of disposable chopsticks, with more than 300 plants employing about 60,000 workers. Since the start of the decade, the country has exported nearly 165,000 tonnes of chopsticks, with 15 billion pairs finding their way to dinner tables in Japan and South Korea. Environmentalists warn that if China continues to use timber at current levels, China's remaining forests will be gone in about a decade.
Now a campaign against disposable chopsticks has come to symbolise China's efforts to try to halt the degradation of the country's forests and to protect the environment. In a surprising move, the government in Beijing has introduced a tax on "one-time" chopsticks from 1 April.
"It's basic math. If one Chinese consumes two pairs of wooden chopsticks a day, how many trees have to be chopped down? A large portion of those chopsticks are shipped overseas," says Yang Dabin, a spokesman for Friends of Nature.
Yang is a big fan of the new tax but is waiting to see how it works in practice. He points to the success in European countries, such as Denmark and Italy, of lowering use of plastic shopping bags by introducing a tax on the product.
"People all knew that using plastic bags was environmentally unfriendly, but it was convenient so they kept it up until a tax was imposed. I think we Chinese people are usually practical on this point," he says.
Hundreds of companies make chopsticks. Eisho in Guilin says it can provide a million chopsticks a day for export. One small producer of disposable chopsticks, Qingyuan Kangxin in southern Guangdong province, says the new tax will almost certainly affect its production plans. It may consider cutting production, particularly for export.
China is now trying to persuade its people to use metal or plastic chopsticks instead of disposable ones. The country's environment is getting steadily worse - the World Bank says 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China and more than 400,000 people die prematurely each year from pollution-related illnesses.
As well as deforestation, roughly a third of China is exposed to acid rain and around 70 per cent of the country's rivers and lakes are polluted.
"We are losing our forest resources at an alarming rate to a rapidly growing economy. We cannot make people replace their wooden furniture with steel and switch to electronic newspapers. But we can have a law to make people pay for using disposable chopsticks. Or we can switch permanently to steel, aluminium or fibre chopsticks," he said.
How did chopsticks come to occupy the position of environmental pariah in a country that is one of the worst polluters in the world? Known in Chinese as "kuazi" which translates as "quick little one" - "chop" is pidgin for "kuai", which means quick or speedy - they occupy a vital position in Chinese culture and history.
"The honourable and upright man keeps well away from the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table," taught the philosopher Confucius, a vegetarian who helped to popularise chopsticks.
They come in all shapes and sizes, including golden and jade chopsticks engraved with calligraphy and probably dating back, in a rough form, more than 5,000 years ago in Asia, when westerners were still eating with their hands. Food was cut into small pieces before going into the pot to use less fuel. Twigs were used to retrieve food from the pot.
Like so many other booms in China, the rise of disposable chopsticks can be traced back to the success of the open economy. Market reform meant economic success in the city, which in turn led to people earning more and eating out more in restaurants, hence the pressure for more disposable chopsticks.
Chopsticks are often made from bamboo: the wood is very common in Asia, is particularly resistant to heat and is easy to split. China began using disposable chopsticks in earnest in the mid-1980s, when they were mass-produced from birch or poplar.
The government insisted on them as they helped to stop the spread of disease and promoted better public hygiene. Their use also rose during the SARS epidemic in 2003, when they were seen as a hygienic option.
Today, a public campaign has galvanised schoolchildren into action, calling for disposable chopsticks to be banned. Pouches for reusable chopsticks are popular for youngsters keen to enjoy the cachet that being an environmental activist offers.
Over the past few years, thousands of restaurants have started washing and reusing chopsticks. South Korea is held up as a model as it has mostly switched to metal chopsticks and banned the use of disposable chopsticks in many restaurants.
Beijing's top Qinghua University uses reusable chopsticks in the canteen following pressure from students. Initially it used spoons to replace the disposable chopsticks but they were hugely unpopular as people had difficulty eating with them - try eating noodles with a spoon.
Recent high-profile cases of environmental disaster, such as the poisoning of the Songhua River near Harbin in north-east China, have had an impact on how environmental issues are dealt with in China. There is a feeling in the central leadership that "green taxation" can help it to fight environmental damage and it realises that gross domestic product growth is not the only yardstick for success - becoming an international pariah for your polluting ways is bad for trade, and the country's dire environmental record could create political discord.
The chopstick tax, part of a package of environmental taxes, is part of the Communist Party's latest Five-Year Plan, which is charged with moving the nation to a more sustainable growth model with less environmental degradation. Owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles will have to pay extra, while wooden floor panels will now be taxed.
Nan Shunji, a deputy at the annual rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress, has been promoting alternatives to disposable chopsticks for years. This year she took aim at wooden toothpicks and brought along toothpicks made of cornflour to promote the concept of environment friendly consumption. "We have wasted a lot of natural resources at our dinner tables," she said.
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