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Billions of Chinese told to break the chopstick habit

It might be the biggest cultural difference between east and west. Whereas westerners have eaten with forks for centuries, the Chinese have stuck determinedly to wielding a pair of chopsticks dextrously. That might be about to change, for environmental reasons.

It seems it simply isn’t sustainable for 1.4 billion Chinese to use 80 billion pairs of throwaway chopsticks each year. The habit is threatening to consume China’s forests unless a solution can be found.

Now an official has dared to utter the heresy that restaurants in China might consider offering knives and forks instead. "We must change our consumption habits and encourage people to carry their own tableware," forestry chairman Bo Guangxin told delegates at the National People's Congress, an event where future policies and legislation are debated.

The Chinese are now importing wood to make chopsticks and are even buying ready-made chopsticks from US suppliers. The idea of the Chinese not being able to manufacture sufficient quantities of an everyday item might alarm the government into action.

There have been concerns about the environmental impact of the chopstick habit in the past. In 2006 the government imposed a five percent tax on disposable chopsticks, but the economic boom in China seems to have made that measure negligible. Now, Bo’s comments suggest a complete culture change may be necessary.

Activists have suggested that the scale of China’s timber imports threaten the world’s natural forests, especially as around 10 percent of the timber from overseas is alleged to come from illegal sources. China’s respect for the environment is somewhat flexible, as the clouds of smog over cities like Shenzhen testifies, but when the solution lies in cheap cutlery, perhaps the Chinese might be willing to change the habits of a few millennia and discover the joys of a fork.

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