Walk into any noodle shop or restaurant and chances are high you’ll soon be eating with a pair of disposable wooden chopsticks from China.
But not for long.
In a move that has cheered environmentalists but worries restaurant owners, China has slapped a 5 percent tax on the chopsticks, known as “waribashi,” over concerns of deforestation.
The move is hitting hard at the Japanese, who consume a tremendous 25 billion sets of wooden chopsticks a year — about 200 pairs per person.
Some 97 percent of them come from China. Chinese chopstick exporters have responded to the tax increase and a rise in other costs by slapping a 30 percent hike on prices of chopstick exports to Japan — with a planned additional 20 percent hike currently pending.
The increase has sent Japanese restaurants scrambling to find alternative sources for disposable chopsticks.
“We’re not in an emergency situation yet, but there has been some impact,” said Ichiro Fukuoka, director of Japan Chopsticks Import Association.
A pair of waribashi that used to cost a little more than 1 yen now is 1.5 yen to 1.7 yen. The rising costs of raw wood and transportation because of higher oil prices have contributed to the rise, industry officials said.
But pretty soon, some fear Japan won’t even be able to get expensive chopsticks from China: the Mainichi and Nihon Keizai newspapers reported that China is expected to stop waribashi exports to Japan as early as 2008.
To minimize the damage, Japanese importers now buy more bamboo chopsticks and are considering new suppliers, including Vietnam, Indonesia and Russia, Fukuoka said.
Convenience store chains try to cushion the impact through cost-cutting in distribution and transportation.
“We provide chopsticks only to customers who ask for them,” said Mayumi Ito, a spokeswoman for Seven & I Holdings Co., owner of Seven-Eleven convenience stores. “We’re closely watching the development.”
Disposable chopsticks produced by domestic makers accounted for half of the market share until about 20 years ago, but were taken over by cheaper and high quality Chinese counterparts, mostly produced by Japan-China joint ventures.
China’s annual production of disposable wooden chopsticks exceeds 45 billion pairs — equivalent to about 25 million trees. About one-third of Chinese chopsticks go to Japan and South Korea, while most of the remainder are used locally, according to a recent U.S. Embassy report quoting the Chinese newspaper Jiefang Daily.
It was not immediately known how China’s latest policy has affected South Korean supplies.
Environmental advocates see the development as a chance to get rid of disposable chopsticks, which have been linked to deforestation and a wasteful lifestyle.
Osaka-based restaurant chain Marche Corp. switched to reusable plastic chopsticks in February at all 760 outlets after testing various materials and a six-month tryout at one-third of its outlets, company spokesman Michihiro Ajioka said.
The chain still keeps waribashi in stock in case customers have trouble snaring noodles with plastic chopsticks, he said. Customers who bring their own chopsticks get a small discount.
A pair of 130 yen plastic chopsticks can be reused some 130 times, Ajioka said.
“So far, we haven’t received any complaints,” he said. “The amount of garbage has decreased significantly, which is definitely better for the environment.”
Japan is China’s largest export destination, while China is the third-largest market for Japanese goods, according to government figures.
Japan’s trade with China rose 12.7 percent in 2005 to $189.4 billion, in its seventh straight year of growth, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
However, diplomatic ties between the two have become increasingly strained due to various disputes.