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Saving the Environment, One Chopstick at a Time

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Native New Yorker Colin, 4, and his uncle, Julien Vernet, 25, experiment with chopsticks at Colin's favorite eatery in New York City's East Village.

Before leaving her apartment to go to J-Pan Sushi in Brooklyn, N.Y., Susan Sandack pats her pockets to see if she has everything she needs: wallet--check. Keys--check. And chopsticks, in a little silver case the size of a cigarette pack--check.

“I like the way other people in the restaurant notice when I bring my own chopsticks,” said Sandack, a graphic designer who began bringing her own chopsticks to restaurants after traveling in China, where the practice is more common. “They sometimes ask why, and I tell them that every little bit helps,” she said.

No one claims bringing their own chopsticks is going to halt climate change or lower the price of gas. It definitely won’t affect the world’s water shortage, and it might not even save the trees.

Even so, in a movement championed by environmentalists and chopstick snobs alike, a small but growing number of North Americans realize that disposable chopsticks are unnecessary and have begun bringing their own chopsticks to Asian restaurants.

Toronto-based Asian-food-trend blogger Vanessa Toye took up the BYOS (Bring Your Own Sticks) cause when she realized how profligate restaurants could be with their disposable chopsticks. “I showed up late to a big dinner once,” said Toye, 25, “and the servers cleared the table between courses--and handed out new chopsticks to everyone,” she said. “There was so much waste!”

Some Asian countries have jumped wholeheartedly on the eco-chopstick bandwagon. China, the world’s largest producer and exporter of chopsticks, cuts down 25 million trees a year to make 45 billion chopsticks, according to Chinese government statistics. Last year, China enacted a 5 percent chopstick tax to encourage conservation. The tax drove up the price of chopsticks 20 to 30 percent and forced Japan to consider alternative chopstick suppliers. (About 97 percent of chopsticks in Japan come from China.) Disposable chopsticks from China used to cost about 1 yen per pair--less than 1 U.S. cent. These days, experts say a pair of disposable chopsticks from China can cost up to 1.5 yen, about 1.3 cents.

Here in the U.S., restaurant experts believe that the BYOS movement could easily take off. “Anything that sounds or feels green will be popular in the U.S.,” said Bret Thorn, food editor at Nation’s Restaurant News, an industry trade magazine.

Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping restaurants reduce their environmental footprints, says that he could see a BYOS movement sweeping the country. “As people try to up the ante on their own environmental consciousness,” he said, “I see more and more initiatives like bringing your own chopsticks--and it is easy to do.”

Efforts to conserve have sparked BYOS movements elsewhere, with restaurant owners storing regular diners’ chopsticks at the restaurant and offering free soups or small discounts on food to those who bring their own sticks. The Osaka, Japan, restaurant group Marche Corporation has switched from disposable chopsticks to plastic reusable ones, offering a small discount to diners who bring their own chopsticks.

In the U.S., where chopsticks take a backseat to more conventional utensils such as forks, spoons, knives and, yes, even hands, the impact of a BYOS movement is more difficult to gauge. “I don’t know if I eat at Asian restaurants often enough to keep chopsticks on me all the time,” said Anne Henson, a New York City waitress. “But I think it is a good idea to invest in a nice pair of chopsticks that is going to last.”

Richard Koga, manager at Takamatsu, a sushi restaurant in Chandler, Ariz., encourages people to bring their own chopsticks to his restaurant.

“Some people become accustomed to their chopsticks or like to use a certain kind,” Koga said. “So we save money on chopsticks, and it is good for the earth.”

Environmentalists say that the elimination of disposable cutlery is a small but important step in reducing our ecological footprint. In many Asian restaurants, bamboo chopsticks are the only disposable thing offered.

“We have to migrate away from disposable culture,” said Lloyd Alter, a Toronto-based environmentalist and writer at TreeHugger.com. Alter says the impact on any city’s infrastructure is just too great. “Every time you throw away something you got from a restaurant, you are paying for it,” he said. “The city then has to dispose of the wasted item.” Alter says there is no reason to use a restaurant’s disposable chopsticks. “We should all carry our own stuff into restaurants,” he said.

Eric Adler, a third-year law student at Brooklyn Law School, said the BYOS movement might have a positive ripple effect. “Even if chopsticks themselves aren’t taking up huge portions of landfills, people will see it happening and maybe start to think about how much they needlessly throw away,” Adler said. “It can be about more than just the chopsticks. It can be about reusing in general,” he added.

The market for reusable chopsticks is growing. Travel chopsticks are now sold at camping stores right next to sporks (a combination fork and spoon) and thermoses. Camping equipment store Backcountry Gear Limited sells what it calls carry-on chopsticks ($19.95) with birch-wood tips that slide sleekly into the stainless-steel ends for protection against outside germs. “They look and feel much nicer than the disposable ones,” said Matt Newman, a customer service representative at Backcountry Gear. “We traditionally market them with our other outdoor products, for camping, but I could see them used in restaurants,” he said. “Tripstixx,” made of polycarbonate, a durable plastic, come with two different-length tip attachments for “sushi” and “banquet” dining and can be stored in a nifty monogrammed case.

Of course, some people do the environmentally friendly thing for a different reason. “My wife and I always keep our chopsticks in the car in case we end up eating at an Asian restaurant,” said Mike Kaplan, 36, a native New Yorker, who prefers chopsticks to forks. “We are happy to be conserving wood,” he says, but the real reason they started bringing chopsticks is that they “hate the splintery ones you get at restaurants.”

Some restaurants respond to the call for less chopstick waste by offering reusable chopsticks, made of a more durable wood, plastic or metal. At Takamatsu, Koga offers regular customers a sturdy wooden pair of reusable chopsticks that are kept in labeled boxes at the sushi bar. “It makes them feel special when they have their own box, their own chopsticks,” he said. If they bring their own, Koga said, he is happy to supply a box for them to store their chopsticks at the sushi bar. “We would take good care of them,” he said.

Desmond Chang, manager at vegetarian restaurant Zen Palate in New York’s Times Square said that he sees a diner bringing in chopsticks about once a month. Chang would like to offer stainless-steel chopsticks instead of disposable ones. “Stainless-steel chopsticks are better because you can wash them like a utensil, and you save the trees,” Chang said.

Bringing your own chopsticks strikes fear in the imaginations of those who wonder what diners do with their dirty sticks. Karen Bu, the manager at Japango in Toronto, says that she would gladly wash diners’ chopsticks but that most people don’t ask. “People just pack their chopsticks in the case and take them home,” she said. “I guess they wash them when they get home.”

E-mail: tb2265@columbia.edu