Georgia Company Exports Chopsticks To China

"Made in China" is something you see on a lot of things for sale in America. But a company in Georgia has decided to turn the tables. It's making and exporting chopsticks to the Chinese.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host: We're all accustomed to seeing the label Made in China on everything from cameras to T-shirts to toys. But a company in Georgia is turning the tables, making something quintessentially Chinese and sending it back to China.

Philip Graitcer has the story.

PHILIP GRAITCER: In a mostly vacant industrial park in the small city of Americus, a new company is manufacturing, of all things, chopsticks for export to China.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

GRAITCER: On the factory floor of Georgia Chopsticks, a worker watches as a machine stamps out the disposable eating utensils. Company president Jae Lee says business is good.

JAY LEE: Right now, like, we are making about two million pairs of chopsticks per day. But like, we are increasing. End of this year, we'll produce 10 million per day.

GRAITCER: Lee says the global market for chopsticks is huge. About one-third of the world's population uses them. Most chopsticks are made in China which turns out 63 billion pairs annually. But they're running short of wood. Wood is something that central Georgia has plenty of. Sweet gum and poplars grow like weeds. It turns out, these trees make perfect chopsticks - their wood is pliable, straight and has a nice, light color.

Besides wood, Americus has something else in abundance: People. Once a manufacturing center, the city lost those jobs in the 1970s when companies relocated overseas. Now, Jae Lee is hiring.

LEE: When I checked, like Americus, they have like a 12 percent unemployment rate. In China, everybody believe like, you know, labor cost is cheap. But I believe, like, our quality is much better in the U.S.

GRAITCER: When Georgia Chopsticks opened at the end of last year, it received 450 job applications in just two weeks. Today, 57 people are employed at the factory, and Lee hopes to hire a hundred more workers by the end of the year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

GRAITCER: Susan White just started working at Georgia Chopsticks. She thinks it's great to turn the tables and make something that's sold in China.

SUSAN WHITE: The first thing I thought about what everybody else thinks, you know, everywhere you see in America it says made from China. And, you know, you wonder if in China they ever see made from America.

GRAITCER: Business leaders are paying attention. David Garriga heads the local Economic Development Council. He says the American connection to the chopstick trade is ironic.

DAVID GARRIGA: Suddenly here's a huge nation and the fastest growing in the world, that finances part of our national debt, and here we are making their basic products and ship it to them, like they've done for us for years. It's just kind of a reverse.

GRAITCER: Right now, Georgia Chopsticks can't keep up with the demand. Every other day, the company ships a sea container the size of a tractor trailer truck with four million chopsticks to China, Korea and Japan, where they're sold to supermarket chains. Since Georgia Chopsticks started production, Asian businesses have been contacting Garriga, interested in opening other kinds of manufacturing facilities in Americus.

So chopsticks may be just the first in a long line of products for Asia, made in Americus, America.

For NPR News, I'm Philip Graitcer in Atlanta.

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