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Some environmentalists say disposable chopsticks contribute to deforestation.
Environmentalists in China have a message to Olympic-goers in Beijing: Bring your own chopsticks.
Some environmentalists say that disposable wooden chopsticks are contributing to deforestation. China's government has recently slapped a tax on disposable chopsticks and urged restaurants not to use them.
Late last year, young volunteers wearing surgical masks staged a protest outside a noodle shop in Beijing.
The protest was organized by the China arm of the environmental group Greenpeace. It targeted a nationwide noodle shop chain, which Greenpeace says used 160,000 pairs of disposable chopsticks a day.
Greenpeace China's spokesman Wang Xiaojun says that's a waste of China's shrinking forests.
"To make disposable chopsticks," Wang says, "China cuts down enough forests each day to cover an area the size of Beijing's Tiananmen Square."
That's about 100 acres of forest.
The Effort to Counter Disposable Chopsticks
Wang says the campaign has so far persuaded 400 restaurants in Beijing, including the noodle chain, not to provide disposable chopsticks unless customers specifically ask for them.
The campaign includes enlisting the help of Chinese pop musicians to get its message across to young consumers.
One of them is Lung Kuan. She describes herself as a vegetarian and former punk rocker.
"I'd like very much to use my position as a public figure, as a singer, to really affect more people and let more people know about the environment," Lung says.
For restaurateurs, switching to sterilized, reusable chopsticks signals that their establishment has gone upscale. Lisa Li, a marketing manager for the Japanese noodle chain Ajisen Ramen says they switched over last summer.
"Our company puts health and quality first, so of course we're going to start with our eating utensils. You can see our chopstick sterilizer over there," she says.
But for cheaper eateries, using disposable chopsticks makes economic sense.
Less Than a Penny a Pair
Nearby, the Xie family runs a fast-food restaurant with lunches for the equivalent of a dollar or two. Xie Xiaoying says that disposable chopsticks cost them less than a penny a pair.
"Restaurants who use sterilized chopsticks often charge one to five yuan for them. But fast-food places like ours can't ask customers to pay for them," Xie says.
Industry advocates argue that disposable chopsticks are made of wood from trees that regenerate quickly, such as birch and bamboo. They point out that the industry creates around 100,000 jobs in China.
Environmental consciousness in China is still in its early stages. For now, environmental activists are urging customers to bring their own chopsticks to restaurants.
While that may seem hip and green to some, to others, it's just an inconvenience.