Chopstick Tax

By Bryan • china, environment • 24 Mar 2006

I go through my own private bamboo forest worth of disposable chopsticks. This isn’t because I particularly enjoy utilizing these single use tools, but rather because most hole in wall noodle and staple food establishments do not offer customers a viable and reusable alternative. Carrying around your own chopsticks is easier said than done. But enter the world of environmental tax. The government has followed up, rather quickly I might add, on their promise to curb timber use by creating a luxury tax which is largely a response to critiques against Chinese led Asian deforestation and to combat growing white pollution problem.

<blockquote>The finance ministry is imposing a 5 percent tax on chopsticks and floor planks, citing a need to conserve timber. Environmentalists around the world have been warning that China’s voracious demand for wood was contributing to the clear-cutting of many forests, especially in Southeast Asia.

The production of disposable wooden chopsticks consumes two million cubic meters (70.6 million cubic feet) of timber each year, the ministry said. Plastic chopsticks, which can be washed and reused, will not be subject to the new tax.

I remember reading, but despite my best efforts, I cannot recall or find the source, that several cities in China had introduced an environmental tax on plastic bags. The tax wasn’t large, maybe .1 or .2 RMB, yet it was incredibly successful in reducing the use of plastic bags. I admire the financial conservation demonstrated by many Chinese people. The deposit on my empty bottles amounts to about .1 RMB, yet they practically snatched out of my hands by some residents in my neighborhood. Given these examples, I think that it is safe to assume that increasing the price of chopsticks will incur conservation and that more multiple use chopsticks will appear at noodle stands. However, I’m unaware of current market prices of disposable chopsticks relative to multiple use varieties and the success of this tax depends on making disposable chopsticks more of a financial burden than the reusable ones. Keep in mind that switching to reusable sticks will require a modest noodle stand (these guys are not pulling in a lot of RMB) to purchase adequate steam cleaners to sanitize the chopsticks.

Another alternative which has been floating around in the Chinese news recently is the idea of launching edible chopsticks made from cornstarch. At this point it appears to be mostly talk, with edible chopsticks and toothpicks being showcased most recently for top party officials at the 10th National People’s Congress in early March. Many questions still remain about the ability of these sticks to help me down Lanzhou da wan niu rou la mian without disintegrating.

The chopstick tax is only a portion of a wide range of items being taxed on April 1st, including luxury watches, yachts, golf balls and golf clubs, vehicles, and a 20% tax on baijiu 白酒 (white wine)…Not that I drink a lot of that anyways.

Chopsticks are a wood related item, and while on this topic I feel that it is apt to ask…”Do you know where your furniture is coming from?”

I write often about illegal forestry in Asia, which is mostly fuelled but China’s growing appetite for timber. Yet I had always assumed that use of such timber was to satisfy the Chinese domestic wood product demand. I cannot understand why I assumed this, given that a good proportion of almost everything produced in China, aside from energy, is exported in some form or another.

From the Financial Times:

Consumer demand in Europe, Japan and the US for reasonably priced everyday furniture and other Chinese wood products is feeding a growing appetite in China for imports of illegally felled timber, according to a new report.

According to the report by US-based Forest Trends, the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Re-search, and the Beijing-based Centre for Chinese Agricultural Policy, China has become the world’s biggest wood workshop in less than a decade.

Chinese manufacturers account for 30 per cent of the world’s furniture trade, with the value of China’s exports of forest products rising from $3.6bn (£2bn) in 1997 to $17.2bn last year. Big markets such as the US and European Union have in- creased imports of Chinese wood products by between 700 and 900 per cent over the same period, the reports says.

It is not only China that is promoting illegal forest practices in developing or underdeveloped countries. Make sure you know where your forest products are coming from. If it’s got wood and says “Made in China”, please, don’t purchase.

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