BEIJING - The burly diner in the dumpling restaurant peers at a copy of Beijing News, tears open a paper packet and slides out a pair of bamboo chopsticks. In a scene repeated millions of times every day in China, he snaps apart the sticks, joined at the end, and uses them to manoeuvre a steaming dumpling into his mouth.

When he's finished eating, a waitress empties the scraps and the chopsticks into a bag. It joins dozens of other bags of chopsticks and waste food out at the back of the restaurant.

Disposable chopsticks in China are convenient, hygienic and everywhere. And they are incredibly wasteful - environmentalists say they are up there with plastic carrier bags and clear plastic CD cases.

The Chinese use 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks every year, which adds up to 1.7 million cubic metres of timber or 25 million mature trees, and badly depleted forests.

China is the world's largest maker of disposable chopsticks, with more than 300 factories employing about 60,000 workers. Since the start of the decade, the country has exported nearly 165,000 tonnes of chopsticks, with 15 billion pairs finding their way to Japan and South Korea.

Environmentalists warn that if China continues to use timber at current levels, China's remaining forests will be gone in about a decade.

Now a campaign against disposable chopsticks has come to symbolise China's efforts to try to halt the degradation of the country's forests and to protect the environment. In a surprising move, the Government in Beijing has introduced a tax on "one-time" chopsticks from April.

"It's basic maths. If one Chinese consumes two pairs of wooden chopsticks a day, how many trees have to be chopped down? A large portion of those chopsticks are shipped overseas," says Yang Dabin, a spokesman for Friends of Nature.

Yang is a big fan of the new tax but is waiting to see how it works in practice. He points to the success in European countries, such as Denmark, of lowering use of plastic shopping bags by introducing a tax on the product.

"People all knew that using plastic bags was environmentally unfriendly, but it was convenient so they kept it up until a tax was imposed. I think the Chinese people are usually practical on this point," he says.

Hundreds of companies make chopsticks. Eisho in Guilin says it can provide a million pairs a day for export.

But one small producer in Qingyuan Kangxin in southern Guangdong province, says the new tax will almost certainly affect its production plans. It may consider cutting production, particularly for export.

China is now trying to persuade its people to use metal or plastic chopsticks instead of disposable ones. The country's environment is getting steadily worse - the World Bank says 16 of the world's 20 most polluted cities are in China and more than 400,000 people die prematurely each year from pollution-related illnesses.

As well as deforestation, roughly a third of China is exposed to acid rain and around 70 per cent of the country's rivers and lakes are polluted.

"We are losing our forests resources at an alarming rate to a rapidly growing economy," Yang said.

"We cannot make people replace their wooden furniture with steel and switch to electronic newspapers. But we can have a law to make people pay for using disposable chopsticks. Or we can switch to steel, aluminium or fibre chopsticks," he said.

It is ironic that the humble chopstick became the environmental pariah in a country that is one of the worst polluters in the world.

Known in Chinese as "kuazi" which translates as "quick little one" - "chop" is pidgin for "kuai", - the chopstick occupies a vital position in Chinese culture and history.

"The honourable and upright man keeps well away from the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table," taught the philosopher Confucius, a vegetarian who helped to popularise the tools.

They come in all shapes and sizes, including golden and jade chopsticks engraved with calligraphy and probably dating back more than 5000 years ago in Asia, when westerners were eating with their hands.

Like so many other booms in China, the rise of disposable chopsticks can be traced back to the success of the open economy. Market reform meant economic success in the city, which in turn led to people earning more and eating out more in restaurants, hence the pressure for more disposable chopsticks.

The country began using disposable chopsticks in earnest in the mid-1980s, when they were mass-produced from birch or poplar.

The Government insisted on them as they helped to stop the spread of disease and promoted better public hygiene. Their use rose during the Sars epidemic in 2003, when they were seen as a hygienic option.

But today, a public campaign has galvanised schoolchildren into action, calling for disposable chopsticks to be banned. Pouches for reusable chopsticks are de rigueur for hip young things keen to enjoy the cachet that being an environmental activist offers.

Over the past few years, thousands of restaurants have started washing and reusing chopsticks. South Korea is held up as a model as it has mostly switched to metal chopsticks and banned the use of disposable chopsticks in many restaurants.

Beijing's top Qinghua University uses reusable chopsticks in the canteen following pressure from students.

Recent high-profile cases of environmental disaster, such as the poisoning of the Songhua River near Harbin in north-east China, have had an impact on how environmental issues are dealt with in China.

There is a feeling within central Government that "green taxation" can be a great weapon in the fight against environment damage.

China's leaders are also beginning to realise that economic growth is not the only yardstick for success - becoming an international pariah for your polluting ways is bad for trade, and can create political discord.

The chopstick tax is part of the latest Five-Year Plan, which is charged with moving the nation to a more sustainable growth model with less environmental degradation.

Owners of four-wheel-drive vehicles will have to pay extra, and wooden floor panels will now be taxed.

Nan Shunji, a deputy at the annual National People's Congress, has been promoting alternatives to disposable chopsticks for years.

This year she also took aim at wooden toothpicks and brought along toothpicks made of cornflour to promote the concept of environment friendly consumption. "We have wasted a lot of natural resources at our dinner tables," she said. 
 

A sticky situation

* Chopsticks have been used in China for more than 5000 years.
* Some of the earliest were made from a single piece of bamboo joined at the top like tweezers.
* By the 10th century, they were being produced in two pieces.
* The Emperors liked silver chopsticks, believing, incorrectly, they would turn black if the food was poisoned.
* Using chopsticks is said to help to improve memory, increase dexterity and help artistic talent.
* Dropping chopsticks is said to be a sign of bad luck to come. Embedding chopsticks in a bowl of rice is very bad luck.

- INDEPENDENT