If you’ve ever visited or lived in Japan, chances are you’ve seen these before:
Waribashi – the disposable wooden chopsticks that you snap apart before eating. Whether used at a restaurant or for a convenience store lunch box, you probably come across them in Japan more often than you realise.
Various sources (including The Japan Times) estimate that around 24-25 billion pairs of waribashi are used in Japan every year, which comes to about 200 pairs per person per year. Japan is the world’s largest consumer of waribashi, and about 90% are imported from China. If we look at the figures given on Wikipedia, China produces around 45 billion pairs a year (which uses about 25 million trees, according to Japan: Stippy), meaning that almost half of the waribashi China produces are used in Japan (about 12.5 million trees’ worth).
What you may not have known is that Japan is a huge importer of timber (the world’s biggest, according to the Japan Tropical Forest Action Network), from North America and South East Asia in particular. Significant issues with Japan buying illegal timber have also been highlighted. Buying illegal timber means that there is no guarantee that the logging companies are sustainably managing the forests or even respecting the human rights of the workers or indigenous peoples in the area. In a 2013 Global Witness report on logging in Sarawak, Malaysia, it was stated:
“Japan has fallen behind other major wood product consumers, namely the US, the EU, and Australia, in prohibiting the trade in illegal wood products. This delay undermines the efforts taken by these other countries by providing an alternative destination for illegal timber, and does not live up to Japan’s G8 commitments to tackle the problem of illegal logging.”
There is actually an issue at the moment with Japan potentially using illegally sourced Malaysian rainforest timber in the construction of its Olympic stadiums in preparation for the Tokyo 2020 games. For more information on Japan’s connection to the logging in Malaysia, I really recommend visiting this Global Witness page.
Anyway, back to waribashi. Can we just think about this for a minute? Every year around 12.5 million trees are felled in China, sent to factories to be made into waribashi, packaged, shipped all the way over to Japan, distributed, and then used once and thrown away. Let me repeat that. 12.5 million trees. Used once. And thrown away. Isn’t that just a bit ridiculous?!
Japanese Wikipedia states that rather than felling trees for waribashi, the waribashi produced within Japan are basically made from scraps – by-products of other logging projects. This is better than felling trees just for waribashi. However the majority are still produced in China, not Japan, and there’s not much information about the logging practices of the companies Japan buys their timber from. Based on Japan’s record and the fact that the chopsticks are bought so cheaply, I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that the trees are sustainably logged. And, even if they were, would that still justify shipping them over to Japan just to be used once? The manufacturing and transport processes also use resources and cause greenhouse gas emissions. And after all, it’s an entirely unnecessary process.
You may know about the ‘my hashi’ (my chopsticks) movement, in which, rather than using waribashi, customers bring their own chopsticks to restaurants instead. By taking your own, you eliminate the need for disposable chopsticks.
These are my hashi! They can be packed up small and are very convenient.
Do you have a set of ‘my hashi’? Even if you don’t, you can simply put a pair of chopsticks from home in a plastic bag and take them with you. It might seem like a pain, but it’s such a small effort and costs you nothing. If you need more encouragement, then invest in a pair of nice wooden or plastic chopsticks with Totoro or something on them (actually I think this is a good idea, as other people will notice too and hopefully more people will start using their own chopsticks!). Plastic isn’t great for the environment either, but plastic chopsticks that you can use for many years are better than one-use disposable ones made from potentially irresponsibly sourced timber.
Why did I choose to write about waribashi? The majority of Japan’s timber imports are not from China, and waribashi only make up a small fraction of the wood that Japan buys. It’s only a small part of a far larger problem – maybe things like the 2020 Olympic Games currently pose more of an issue than waribashi. As an ordinary person with very little knowledge of the timber trade, however, what I can do about the Olympic Games problem is limited. There are some things I can do – I can sign a petition (please do, by the way!), I can learn as much as I can about the issue, and I could even consider a career in forest management.
But this blog is focussing on how we can go green ourselves, in our everyday lives. The way we continue to use cheap disposable chopsticks, with no concern for sustainability or where they come from, makes them basically a symbol of everything we need to avoid in order to make our society environmentally friendly. If you are living in Japan, you can take an immediate step towards a greener lifestyle by refusing to use waribashi.
Again, what we can do may seem small, but it’s still so important that we do what we can! You can influence the people around you – you can ask others to do the same, you could even buy a nice set of ‘my hashi’ as a gift for someone. I’m definitely not perfect. Although I have my chopsticks, I have a bad habit of forgetting to take them with me. Forgetting one too many times and using disposable chopsticks in a restaurant the other day was what made me decide to write this post. So from now on (at least while I’m still in Japan) I’ll leave my chopsticks by my wallet, so that I will never forget them again when I go out!
I encourage you to do the same!