When our graduate class in resource and environmental management was given an assignment by Dr. Anne Salomon to undertake a conservation action informed by science and report to back to the class about it, we were excited by the opportunity to take on some worthwhile local issue and actually get credit for it. After batting around some ideas, our group chose one that had nagged at us for some time and seemed to offer some unpicked ‘low-hanging fruit’ for the environmental movement: the widespread practice, particularly among sushi restaurants, of doling out disposable chopsticks for dine-in customers.
Unlike with many other difficult environmental issues, this practice isn’t connected to some deep tradition: the disposable chopstick habit is probably no more than a few decades old. Nor is it about economics, for Chinese and Korean food restaurants — which arguably have similar cost profiles to sushi restaurants — tend to offer diners plastic or metal chopsticks and don’t go out of business. It’s hardly political either. As far as we know, our government’s strings aren’t being pulled by the disposable chopstick industry.
We found that most of the world’s disposable chopsticks are produced in China, but that Canada and the U.S. are also getting in on the game. According to the Los Angeles Times, some 100 acres of forest are felled every 24 hours in China alone to meet demand for chopsticks. Considering the climate-regulating, carbon-sequestering, erosion-reducing, and biodiversity- and habitat-providing properties of forests, this is a global issue. And considering that Vancouver probably leads the pack among North American cities for sushi obsession (there are more than a dozen sushi restaurants on an eight-block strip of my Commercial Drive neighborhood alone), this is also a local one.
We also learned that although this issue has attracted relatively little attention in North America, it is gaining ground in Asia. Advocacy for reusable chopsticks is a pet campaign of Greenpeace China. In light of concerns about deforestation, China has imposed a five per cent tax on disposables. In South Korea, disposable chopsticks have been banned at all restaurants above a certain size for more than a decade. In Japan, an Osaka-based restaurant chain successfully ditched the default-disposable habit at all of its 760 outlets. A bring-your-own-sticks campaign has also attracted endorsements from Asian pop stars. It’s even spawned activist art: one Chinese artist engaged 200 university students to collect 82,000 used disposables; he used these to construct a ‘forest’ of life-sized trees. By presenting this exhibit in public spaces, the artist’s team collected more than 40,000 signatures of passersby willing to rethink the disposable habit.
We set to work by setting up a Facebook page with an FAQ and a link to an online petition. That petition collected names of people who endorsed our call for restaurants to stop offering disposables as the default option for dine-in customers, and to consider levying a small fee on disposable chopsticks offered on take-out orders (or alternatively, a small discount for customers that choose to forego these). Just as importantly, the petition collected signers’ postal codes and the names of sushi restaurants they frequent and would recommend. This helped us generate a list of restaurants to approach and provided evidence that we were speaking for their clientele. Signers left some great comments, too: for example, northern B.C. environment management consultant Laurie Gallant suggested that restaurants could label chopsticks with their own logo and sell them as souvenirs.
Armed with the petition results and our growing package of ecological, economic, and cultural arguments for a rethink, our group members paired up during low-business hours and initiated friendly conversations with managers and owners of 12 sushi restaurants on Commercial Drive. This seemed a great place to start because it’s undeniably a green-leaning market. This made it easy for us to make our case in terms that resonate most immediately with businesses. First, customers want reusable chopsticks, and they are cost effective. It makes dine-in establishments look classier and helps differentiate a restaurant from its competition. And, oh yeah: as a bonus, you can do something about that pesky issue of needless deforestation.
Restaurant managers and owners were particularly intrigued when they saw that their establishments were among those recommended by our petition’s signatories. We were pleased to learn that two sushi restaurants on Commercial Drive — Kishimoto and Isshin — were already showing leadership by offering reusable chopsticks to diners-in. Both maintained that there is really no cost advantage in using disposables, and that it was just the right thing to do. Wakaba Sushi in Il Mercato mall pledged to take up our challenge and began offering reusable chopsticks to diners-in. More restaurants, including Sake Maki and Sankyu Sushi and Oyster Bar, conceded that disposables are wasteful and agreed to consider our information carefully.
But not all were responsive: one manager insisted that his customers absolutely require disposables for hygiene reasons — which is a concern that was echoed by others throughout our project. He didn’t have a response when we noted that his well-established, similarly sized competitor across the street uses reusable chopsticks. Moreover, when we pointed out that his customers are probably satisfied that the reusable dishes on which the sushi is served are clean, he said, “Well, those dishes don’t touch their lips. It’s something about touching your mouth, maybe.” We then noted that the washable cups he serves tea in touch patrons’ mouths, and even he had to admit he was stumped for an answer.
Faced with this curious gap in logic, what’s a forest fan to do? Recycling disposable chopsticks should be a last resort; ideally, we want to avoid cutting down the trees and consuming all that energy to produce them in the first place. Taxing disposable chopsticks, while a commendable effort, is a top-down solution that is often too little, too late.
In the end, the message needs to come from the ground and work its way up, starting at the neighbourhood level. If businesses hear it enough, they’ll change their tune. Think about it: it wasn’t that long ago that styrofoam coffee cups and free, petroleum-based, wildlife-killing single-use plastic bags were ubiquitous. Today, bringing your own cup is not just acceptable but expected in many places, and plastic shopping bags are banned in numerous countries.
If you love sushi and forests as much as we do, consider this action for your next dine-in Asian feast: ask the server or manager if they have reusable chopsticks for you to use, and if not, would they consider offering them as the default option for diners-in? You could make it easier by just cutting out or printing this article and leaving it with your payment, and be sure to attention it to that establishment’s manager.
Unlike so many ‘wicked’ problems, this really is a no-brainer. And no, it’s not just about chopsticks and sushi restaurants: it’s about rethinking all of our needless uses of resources and energy on a daily basis.
Alisha Gauvreau, Nathan Hentze, Sergio Fernandez Lozada, Brennan Lowery, and Larissa Ardis