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Chinese environmentalists have this important message for anyone coming to the Beijing Olympics this summer: Bring your own chopsticks.

They say that disposable wooden chopsticks are contributing to deforestation. China's has recently slapped a tax on disposable chopsticks and urged restaurants not to use them.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing on this uniquely Chinese environmental debate.

ANTHONY KUHN: Late last year, young volunteers wearing surgical masks staged a protest outside a noodle shop here. The protest was organized by the China arm of the 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.

Mr. WANG XIAOJUN (Spokesman, Greenpeace China): (Chinese spoken)

KUHN: To make disposable chopsticks, he 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.

Wang says the campaign has so far convinced 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.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LUNG KUAN (Singer): (Singing in foreign language)

KUHN: One of the musicians is Lung Kuan. She describes herself as a vegetarian and former punk rocker.

Ms. KUAN: I'd like very much to use my position as a public figure, as a singer, to really affect more people and to let more people know about the environment.

KUHN: 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.

Ms. LISA LI (Marketing Manager, Ajisen Ramen): (Chinese spoken) 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.

KUHN: But for cheaper eateries, using disposable chopsticks makes economic sense.

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.

Ms. XIE XIAOYING: 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.

KUHN: According to official media, China cranks out some 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year at places like this factory in eastern Zhejiang province.

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.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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