The Chopsticks That Ate China
By Zhang Dan, FORTUNE

(FORTUNE Magazine) - The chopstick is a 3,000-year-old tool, but the disposable wooden variety may not be around much longer. That's because China, the world's top user, producer, and exporter of the ubiquitous wooden sticks, is consuming its forests at a rate of 25 million poplar and birch trees a year, according to government statistics.

At that rate, environmentalists say, the forests in China's northeastern Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning provinces will be wiped out in 20 years. So China is trying to slow its annual domestic consumption of about 45 billion pairs of wooden chopsticks by promoting the use of non-disposable plastic ones and urging people to bring their own chopsticks to restaurants.

It is also trying to persuade the thousands of tiny chopstick factories in China, which employ more than 100,000 workers, to switch to bamboo.

But habits die hard, so on April 1, China applied the surest pressure any government possesses to change a behavior: a tax. A 5% surcharge was added to wooden chopsticks, including the 15 billion pairs exported each year. That caused an uproar in Japan, which buys about 99% of its disposable wooden chopsticks from China. Japanese newspapers have reported that China intends to end all chopstick exports to Japan in 2008.

There's also a widespread expectation in China that the 5% tax is the government's first step toward a complete ban on wooden chopsticks. Neither suspicion could be confirmed, but Japanese chopstick distributors are already turning to new sources in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia. That should make chopstick lovers in Japan happy - and tree lovers in Vietnam and Indonesia shed a tear. Top of page