[From June Issue 2014]
Receiving a bowl of noodles from across the counter with one hand a customer uses the other to split apart a pair of chopsticks he’s been holding between his teeth and proceeds to vigorously slurp up his noodles. This familiar scene at standing soba and udon shops might one day disappear. That’s because disposable chopsticks are gradually starting to disappear from the counter.
Plastic and lacquer chopsticks are increasingly replacing disposable ones. These days disposable chopsticks are rarely seen at family restaurants and Japanese-style bars. There are two reasons why disposable chopsticks have become less popular. The first reason is that there is a preconception that cutting down trees to make them leads to deforestation. The second is that more and more people think it’s a waste to use disposable chopsticks, because they are thrown away after only one use.
Responding to the view that disposable chopsticks are a bad thing, YOSHII Teruo, president of Yoshiishoji, a company that sells chopsticks wholesale in Nara Prefecture, says, “Using domestically produced disposable chopsticks helps protect the environment.” Yoshino Japanese cedar is produced in the Yoshino region, where the company is located. This area is also said to be the region where disposable chopsticks originated. Originally, disposable chopsticks were made from the wood shavings created in the production of cedar sake barrels.
Today, they are made by effectively using lumber from “forest thinning” (removing certain trees from an overcrowded forest), and “wood shavings” from timber used for construction materials. No wood is wasted. In short, the production of Yoshino chopsticks is unrelated to deforestation. “Forest thinning effectively encourages the growth of surrounding trees,” Yoshii argues. “Therefore, making chopsticks with wood from forest thinning serves the purpose of preserving and cultivating timber resources.”
Mr. Yoshii explains the benefits of using disposable chopsticks: “Over the 20 years after they are planted, the cedar and cypress trees used for making chopsticks absorb a tremendous amount of carbon dioxide from the air. In other words, the mountain forests we humans carefully cultivate play a big role in protecting the environment we live in. It’s been calculated that a reduction of 16 grams of carbon dioxide per year is generated by using one pair of chopsticks.”
In response to the view that disposable chopsticks are a waste, Mr. Yoshii has this to say: “Plastic or lacquered chopsticks are certainly convenient because they can be used over and over again. However, there is a cost involved in the water and detergent needed to wash them. It is important to consider this total cost, rather than the cost of a single pair of disposable chopsticks. We should also take into account the effect draining water has on the environment.”
Disposable chopsticks are produced in other regions, of course, but the production process is mostly mechanized. However, most of the workers in the Yoshino region still continue to make them by hand to this day. Emphasizing the benefits of wooden chopsticks, Yoshii says, “Not only are chopsticks a tool for eating, but by using them, old customs and traditions are preserved. For this reason, because of their unique aroma, feel and texture, cedar chopsticks are best.
Text: ITO Koichi