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China’s disposable chopstick addiction is destroying its forests

A woman feeds a young girl with disposable wooden chopsticks in Shanghai. (AFP/Peter Parks)
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China uses 20 million trees each year to feed the country's disposable chopstick habit, Bo Guangxin, the head of a major forestry group, told Chinese parliamentarians on Friday according to Chinese state media. At 4,000 chopsticks per tree, that's roughly 80 billion chopsticks per year -- far more than the 57 billion estimated by the country's national forest bureau.

While this is hardly the first time that the chopstick issue has come up in China, the new numbers make the problem look particularly urgent. The country's last forest survey, published in 2009, documented rampant deforestation and forest quality far below the global average. Greenpeace has even dedicated a campaign to the chopstick problem, blaming it for the destruction of 1.18 million square meters of forest every year.

China has tried to clamp down on chopsticks before -- chiefly by taxing them and wooden floor boards, another environmental offender. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal's Jane Spencer reported on a cultural backlash against the chopsticks, led by celebrities, activists and environmentally minded youth.

"Disposable chopsticks are destroying China's forests," a 26-year-old activist, dressed as an orangutan  reportedly said at a protest at Microsoft's Chinese headquarters. "We must protest this pointless waste!"

But protest does not appear to have done the trick. In 2010, a massive mudslide that killed 700 was blamed on deforestation, reports the Wall Street Journal. Some reports on deforestation have been censored on the Chinese web. The citizen journalist Liu Futang, who was later tried for his work, told the Post in 2010 that China "is a real-life example of the film 'Avatar.' Except in 'Avatar,' they could organize together to fight back."

Perhaps Bo Guangxin's appeal to parliament, translated by Global Post, represents an appeal to more transparently confront the issue.

"We must change our consumption habits and encourage people to carry their own tableware," he said.