“Waribashi,” or disposable wooden chopsticks, are usually hated by environmentalists as a symbol of deforestation.

But Eco Media Foundation, an environmental group in Tokyo, is trying to encourage the use of waribashi — in order to save forests.

Because many of the nation’s forests are overgrown and need thinning, and the manpower to do this is limited because the process isn’t profitable, EMF believes making chopsticks from this excess wood will not only reinvigorate the lumber industry but benefit those trees that are left standing by making their environment healthier.

The group is trying to engage convenience stores in a project to promote this effort by running messages on chopsticks’ paper wrappers promoting greater use of made-in-Japan chopsticks. The message is on one side of the wrapper, and on the other is space for an ad that, for example, companies can use to pitch their products.

“We realized that using wood gleaned from thinning out Japanese forests will not just save our forests but also those in China,” said Atsushi Nomura, who works at an advertisement-design firm and is a member of EMF, which was approved Thursday by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as a nonprofit organization.

Most domestic waribashi are made from leftover lumber or from wood gleaned in forest thinning, which though limited at present leads to a healthier ecosystem.

Forest-thinning has been limited due to a lack of forestry workers that stems from the decline in the domestic timber market, which can’t compete with cheaper import lumber, Nomura said.

Demand for made-in-Japan chopsticks is marginal because they cost about five times more than those imported from China, according to EMF.

Most waribashi distributed in Japan — at restaurants, convenience stores and supermarkets — are imported. According to the Forestry Agency, of the 25.65 billion pairs of waribashi produced in 2002 for use in Japan, nearly 97 percent were from China.

Chinese chopsticks are usually made from trees cut down specifically for this purpose, a process that is less eco-friendly than the Japanese method, the group claimed.

The ad project is therefore aimed at shifting demand to local products.

“Advashi” — a combination of advertisement and “hashi” (chopsticks) — can help increase demand for thinned-out trees, Nomura said.

Under the project, his group designs the advertisements requested by participating sponsors and collects fees from them. Part of this revenue is then used to place orders for more waribashi from a Kyoto-based manufacturer. The increased demand is thus expected to give the manufacturer the incentive to promote forest-thinning.

“The ad doesn’t have to be a message about the environment, because merely using advashi will contribute to the environment anyway,” Nomura reckoned.

The advashi concept will be explained on the opposite side of the ad. Sponsors and distributors, including convenience stores, could thus boost their eco-friendly image by participating in the project, Nomura said, adding that sponsors can also expand their advertising channels, although cost-effectiveness is still uncertain.

According to a rough calculation by the group, the cost of putting the ad on 1 million advashi distributed to convenience stores over a month nearly equals that of a full-page ad in a popular weekly magazine.

Otsuma Women’s University in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward became the first sponsor. Students have prepared 5,000 pairs of chopsticks announcing a college festival Sunday and Monday at a cost of 60,000 yen, and are providing 2,400 of them free to shoppers at four Mini Stop convenience stores in the ward.

The Mini Stop chain, which usually offers Chinese chopsticks, is trying to reduce the overall use of waribashi as a franchise policy. But it went along with the project this time in an effort to promote sales at a newly opened outlet on campus, and paid a third of the advertising cost.

The chain will also accept used advashi wrappers as discount coupons for ice cream sold at this shop during the two days.

“I always thought that cutting trees was a bad thing,” said Taeko Ono, 20, a student taking part in the project. “But the advashi project taught me that this isn’t necessarily so.”

After the project receives more recognition, EMF plans to make it more eco-friendly by building a system to recycle used waribashi and wrappers, Nomura said.

“Because this is a new medium, there are still issues we need to address,” he said. “But at the same time, we see many possibilities for advertising contributing to the environment.”

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