Desperate to save trees, China slaps a tax on wooden chopsticks

Chopping chopsticks: desperate to save trees, China slaps a tax on wooden chopsticks

Paul Mooney

About 5,000 years ago, people in China began using twigs to yank hot food out of their cooking pots. The twigs inspired the creation of chopsticks, China’s primary eating utensils. Today, when Chinese citizens dine out, they often use disposable wooden chopsticks. But in a nation of 1.3 billion people, these one-time-use utensils are eating up forests.

China is the world’s leading maker of disposable wooden chopsticks. It produces 45 billion pairs each year. That translates into an annual loss of roughly 25 million trees. Using disposable chopsticks “wastes a lot of natural resources,” says Xu, a student at Jianguoli Middle School in Beijing.

Last April, in an effort to curb deforestation, the Chinese government began charging a 5 percent tax on disposable chopsticks. The hope: The price hike would drive people to eat with reusable utensils–such as washable plastic chopsticks or metal spoons–instead of tree-depleting chopsticks. Could the new tax help save China’s forests?


In the last decade, vast areas of China’s forests have been cleared for making timber products, including chopsticks. Many of these goods are sold to foreign countries like the U.S. As a result, forests now cover only 18.6 percent of China’s land–while the international average for a country’s forest cover is 34 percent, says Zhu Chunquan, a conservation director of World Wildlife Fund China.

Besides a concern for dwindling natural resources, many scientists fear that losing China’s forests could lead to an increase in natural disasters. Studies show that logging was partly responsible for a massive flooding of the Yangtze River in 1988, which killed more than 2,500 people.

One cause of the deadly flood: Vast forest regions near the Yangtze were slashed. With fewer tree roots to hold soil in place, erosion occurred. Heavy rains washed soil into waterways, clogging passages. This helped cause the Yangtze to spill over its banks.


Some people believe that a 5 percent chopstick tax will do little to quash China’s hunger for the disposable sticks. That’s because one pair of the eat-and-toss utensils sells for a mere 1.25 mao (0.016 U.S. cents).

Still, the tax is received as a positive sign that the Chinese government is paying attention to the environment. “Any effort to reduce the use of wood, such as a tax on wooden chopsticks, is welcome,” says Zhu. “However, a tax policy alone will not save China’s [trees].” To sustain Chinas forests, Zhu stresses the need for better forest management and increased environmental awareness.

To this end, many Chinese teens are speaking up about protecting forests. Members of the Chinese Communist Youth League have been encouraging students to bring their own reusable chopsticks to school. At Tianjin Middle School and at the No. 156 Middle School in the city of Harbin, the schools’ dining rooms reportedly stopped using disposable chopsticks after students protested.


CAPITAL: Beijing

POPULATION: 1.3 billion

AREA: 9,596,960 square kilometers (3,705,386 square miles); slightly smaller than the United States

EDUCATION: Students attend school from September to mid-July. Most schools begin at 7:30 a.m. and end at 5 p.m., with a two-hour lunch break.

TECH BEAT: China has the world’s largest number of cell-phone users–more than 404 million subscribers. The U.S., a nation of 298 million people, has around 214 million cell-phone subscribers.

TRADING SPACES: In 2005, the U.S. imported $243.5 billion worth of goods from China. They include computer parts, timber products, and clothing. The U.S. exported $41.8 billion worth of products, like aircraft and cotton, to China.


SUPPLY AND DEMAND: Many Chinese forests are destroyed to make disposable chopsticks.

Jumpstart your lesson with these pre-reading questions:

* In Western cultures, the fork is a primary eating utensil. Scholars believe that forks first showed up at dining tables around the 7th century B.C. in the Middle East. When forks were first introduced to England in 1608, people were slow to take to the strange tool–they preferred to eat with their hands, knives, and spoons. In America, forks did not become popular until the early 19th century. Unlike Western cultures, many Eastern cultures are accustomed to dining with chopsticks. When and where do you think chopsticks were invented?

* Each year, China exports approximately 15 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks to Japan and South Korea. In addition, China produces many more pairs to satisfy the needs of its population of 1.3 billion people. How many pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks do you think China produces each year? How many trees are needed to create all these chopsticks?


* Many timber products made in China, including chopsticks and furniture, are exported to the United States. How might you be contributing to deforestation in China? How might you help save China’s trees?


HISTORY: What do fireworks and the compass have in common? They are examples of some of the many things invented in ancient China. Have each student research to find an object that originated in ancient China. Then have hint or her create a time line on how the selected object has changed over time.


* To learn more about World Wildlife Fund’s effort to curb deforestation in China, visit:

* To read a Chinese journalist’s view on how disposable chopsticks affect the environment, visit:

* This Web site from the California Academy of Sciences examines the history of several different types of eating utensils, including chopsticks:


Name: —

DIRECTIONS: True (T) or False (F)? Circle the correct letter. Then, on a separate piece of paper rewrite the false statements to make them true.

1. T F China manufactures approximately 20 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks each year.

2. T F Each year, approximately 25 million trees in China are turned into disposable wooden chopsticks.

3. T F The Chinese government hopes a 10 percent tax on disposable chopsticks will help curb deforestation.

4. T F Forests cover 34 percent of China’s land.

5. T F Logging can lead to soil erosion.


1. False, China manufactures approximately 45 billion pairs of disposable wooden chopsticks each year.

2. True

3. False, the Chinese government hopes a 5 percent tax on disposable wooden chopsticks will help curb deforestation.

4. False, forests cover only 18.6 percent of China’s land

5. True


Name: —

Tracking Trees

In “Chopping Chopsticks” (p. 20), you learned that approximately 25 million trees in China are turned into disposable wooden chopsticks each year. But chopsticks aren’t the only timber products that are eating up China’s forests. Below is a chart showing the volume of timber consumed by three different industries in China. Use the information in the chart to complete the sections that follow.

A. Graph It

On a separate sheet of paper, use the above data to construct the following:

1. A bar graph showing the volume of timber consumed by the construction, furniture, and paper industries in 2001.

2. A line graph showing the volume of timber consumed by the paper industry between 1996 and 2003.

B. Analyze the Data

Study the data table and your graphs to answer the following questions in complete sentences:

1. Which of the three industries featured above consumed the highest volume of timber in 2001?

2. In which year did the paper industry consume the lowest volume of paper? How much did it consume during that year?

3. What was the total volume of timber consumed by the construction, furniture, and paper industries in 2003?

4. Compare the volume of timber consumed by the three different industries between 1996 and 1998. Describe the trends.

Take It Further:

Deforestation occurs in many different parts of the world. Perform research to list five things that you can do every day to help save the world’s trees.


1. The construction industry consumed the highest volume of timber in 2001.

2. The paper industry consumed the lowest volume of timber in 1996. It consumed 18 million cubic meters that year.

3. The construction, furniture, and paper industries consumed a combined total of 122 million cubic meters of timber in 2003.

4. Between 1996 and 1998, the volume of timber consumed by the construction and furniture industries continued to decrease. However, the volume of timber used by the paper industry increased every year during that period.


(in millions of cubic meters)

Industry 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003

Construction 71 68 66 70 68 70 73 75

Furniture 16 14 13 11 12 13 14 15

Paper 18 22 23 29 26 27 30 32

Source: “China’s Wood Market, Trade and the Environment,”

by Z. Chunquan, R. Taylor, and F. Guoqiang, Science Press

USA and WWF Intl., 2004.

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COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning