Chopstick Economics and the “My Hashi” Boom

img01.pngThe humble waribashi – disposable wooden, or literally ‘split-apart’ chopsticks. Japan consumes a massive 25 billion sets of them every year – about 200 pairs per person. Earlier this year, in a move that was cheered by environmentalists, China’s latest 5 year plan slapped a 5 percent tax on their chopstick exports over concerns of deforestation. The tax along with the rising costs of raw wood and transportation because of higher oil prices have contributed to big price rises. A pair of waribashi that used to cost a little over 1 yen 4 months ago are now 1.5-1.7 yen. As some 97% of the throwaway chopsticks in Japan come from China, restaurants and convenience stores alike have been scrambling to find viable alternatives.

Stores are curtailing their once lavish distribution of waribashi with many convenience store chains now only providing waribashi to people who ask for them. Restaurants have started using reusable chopsticks as a main stay, whilst still stocking waribashi in case customers have trouble snaring elusive noodles with the plastic chopsticks. And some establishments have even begun to offer small discounts to people who bring their own chopsticks. The number of environmentally conscious people taking their own hashi along to work and to restaurants has increased dramatically and the movement has stirred something of a ‘My Hashi’ boom. Online shops offering everything from coloured to personally lettered or logo’ed hashi are flourishing.

Until about 20 years ago waribashi produced by domestic makers accounted for half of the market, but were taken overitem_action_02.jpg by the cheaper and higher quality Chinese counterparts. China’s annual production of disposable wooden chopsticks now exceeds 45 billion pairs — equivalent to about 25 million trees. The majority of Chinese chopsticks go to Japan and South Korea, with the remainder being used locally. Some in Japan fear we soon won’t even be able to get expensive chopsticks from China: Japanese newspapers Mainichi and Nihon Keizai have both reported that China could stop waribashi exports to Japan altogether by as early as 2008. Environmentalists see this as an opportunity for Japan to better manage its own forests, currently Japan produces only 500 million of its own waribashi, only a sixth of what they produced only 1 or 2 decades ago. Indeed much of the country is currently seen as over-forested with an estimated 80% of the Japanese forests requiring thinning. Can Japan make the changes needed?

17 thoughts on “Chopstick Economics and the “My Hashi” Boom”

  1. Nice article.
    The figure of approximately 200 pairs per person is astounding. Does the imply each person eats out at restaurants or convenience stores about 200 times a year?

  2. I would say that adds to all the stuff you get in the combini too. Not only restaurants. For every working day I get food where I get waribashi, I surly come to this number.

    And if you add up japanese who often go out for dinner too, and you have this number very easy.

  3. Did you know that in China you give chop sticks as a gift at weddings!? (it is considered good luck because they come in pairs!) Maybe the recent boom in marriages is driving the shortage!???

  4. 200 pairs? Is that correct?

    Living in America, I don’t use anywhere near the amount of chopsticks that someone in China, Japan, or Korea would use. I’m looking a 25 pack sitting at my desk now. Along with all the take out and sushi I eat in a year, I wouldn’t be surprised to surpass 200 myself.

    BTW: Great blog!

  5. Hmm…I remember campaigns going in the mid 90s when the (stippy creators first met) and the rant at school cafeterias was that the demand for Chopsticks encouraged the raping of the forests in Indonesia (by illegal loggers supplying places such as Japan) and that enough wood to build 20,000 houses each year in indonesia was being pillaged for bentoo boxes….

    Another point is that wooden products in China are expensive! in fact they have to import most wooden material themselves so even with importation costs they are producing them so cheaply..in the case of more labour intensive products like furniture I can see how the saving in labour costs alone makes them competitive, but producing Wari-bashi cant be too complex (?)

    Last point, interested to see the figures on Bamboo chopsticks vs. wood Bamboo is the way to go…no??

  6. Bamboo chopsticks are difficult to make because the wood is so hard. Fine-tuned carving takes a lot of time and so bamboo chopsticks are considered high-quality, i.e. not thrown away lightly. Their allure is that the wood is so light, does not break easily, and can be widdled to a very narrow point, but I haven’t seen any machines that make them on a mass scale. Try making a set yourself though and you’ll be proud of them forever. (hint: bamboo naturally releases a sealant under heat, so wave them through a flame for a bit after sanding down.)

  7. Korean restaurants in Korea have a modern solution to this: use metal chopsticks. Take a hint guys, using a silver pair of chopsticks (they used to sell those at Tiffanny too!) is good for trees.

  8. @Traveler: no its not a modern way in Korea. They always used metal chopsticks. Especially, because they only use them for putting things together and then eat the rest with a normal spoon. Thats why they also do not take the bowl into the hand like japanese people do. And one more thing. Did you ever try to eat a whole meal with metal chopsticks? Well I am no Arnold Schwarzenegger, I prefer wooden ones.

  9. Yea those korean metal chopsticks are interesting….i ve decided that it was a government plan to force consumption of steel as korea strove to become a major world player in the steel industry. the govt majorly subsidised the modern Posco factory but i guess it took a while for a international demand for korean steel to kick in.

    I suspect that they only started using steel chopstix since the mid 60′s….can anyone clarify that???

    I was recently guided around a mid-size steel factory in China and none of the steel was mined locally…it was ALL purchased internationally as scrap, to be recast for domestic use

    hey, the korean restaurants better watch their silverware (chopsticks) now the chinese are pinching the lot!

  10. That’s quite sad, but I’m happy steps are being taken to help the environment. I love the picture you have with this article. May I ask where it’s from and if there’s a store that sells them online? I’m a chopstick hoarder.

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