Assuming that I throw them away each time, and taking transportation out of the question, which is the most environmentally sound choice: single use bamboo chopsticks, or single use plasticware?

What are the factors involved in the analysis, like plastic pollution, or land-use for bamboo, etc? (I am in the USA and I don't even know if bamboo is grown here.)

  • Disposable chopsticks are reportedly treated with chemicals and bleach during the manufacturing processes. That could be one factor to consider when you choose to use them. – Jake Aug 6 '15 at 17:40
  • As I understand it, dishwashing soaps can be polluted or unhealthful as well. And shampoo, and cleaning products, carpet, fumes from cars, CO from a gas stove... So, in other words, the question is unsolvable, and we have to decide based on convenience and intuition. Like everything. – user2423 Aug 8 '15 at 0:50

The issue of disposable chopsticks has been raised in Japan and "personal chopsticks" called マイ箸 (mai hashi, "my chopsticks") are a popular solution: You carry your own chopsticks in a case. The case is either hard (wood/bamboo/plastic) or soft (fabric) and washable in either case.

Many people keep their own chopsticks at their workplace or carry them in their bag. (Many restaurants have also switched to dishwasher-safe plastic chopsticks.) マイ箸 are also a popular gift.

Of course, as an answer to your question

Which is better for carry-out eating: disposable bamboo chopsticks or disposable plasticware?

I would like to answer "neither, use personal chopsticks".

(Also, if you're on-the-go, chopsticks are great. You can use them to eat almost anything, and you only need one hand, so you can hold your plate/container in the other hand.)


TLDR; it's impossible to answer your question without life-cycle analysis data and without a precise definition of "better" or "environmentally sound". The chopstick you reuse most is probably your best option. They are still rare, but edible chopsticks could have a low impact.

Life cycle assessment

Generally questions like these are answered by performing a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of both products. An LCA study investigates all the processes that are involved in the full life-cycle of a product and lists all the used materials and energy as well as generated waste products. Once you have such a detailed list, you can do an assessment and compare multiple factors you are interested in. The final decision which is better however would still depend on what you think is most important. Is it the contribution to ecotoxicity of both products, is it global warming potential, eutrophication, acidification, land-use? Or perhaps a combination of all these things?

Note that LCAs do have their limits. They are rather time-consuming and costly to perform. LCA results may not translate to other countries (e.g. transport of materials may affect the outcome) or become obsolete in time (due to changing manufacturing processes or waste processing). Also some things are not measured in LCAs like labour conditions or land-use because those are rather hard to quantify.

Best guess

Now back to your question. I wasn't able to find an LCA study that compares bamboo versus plastic chopsticks, so this makes an answer rather hard. If I had to guess, I'd say that bamboo chopsticks are better because bamboo grows rather quickly and is compostable. However AFAIK almost all bamboo in the US is imported (more info here), so transportation most likely would have an effect. Also the way bamboo is grown (water, fertilizer and pesticide use) may have a negative influence on the environment.

Best alternative option

If you really want to make a contribution, don't use disposable chopsticks! The chopstick with the smallest environmental footprint is the one you reuse most (as long as you don't use loads of soap and water for cleaning)

Apparenty there are only 2 restaurants in Tokyo that have them, but edible chopsticks could potentially have a low environmental impact. I've read they don't taste great, but you can put them to good use when you're (almost) done eating.

  • 1
    Thank you, this is pretty much what I figured. So taking reusable eating utensils to work is best. I know how to wash with little water and soap, although there is inherent waste in washing just a few things. I just recall reading about how in many parts of the world, the "plate" that food is served on is a banana leaf torn from a convenient nearby plant, and people eat with their hands (of suitably prepared food). Throw the leaf away, rinse your hands and you are done! Getting restaurants to use leaves might be tough. The real problem is "there's so many of us". How do we solve that? War? – user2423 Jul 29 '15 at 11:37
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    I think the 'population problem' is an ethical dilemma with no easy solutions. The best solution I've read about is to improve female eduation and help developing countries become more developed (population growth in developed countries is generally stable, it's the developing countries that cause world population growth). However, people in developed countries do have a bigger environmental footprint. More information also in this question – THelper Jul 29 '15 at 11:51
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    "The chopstick with the smallest environmental footprint is the one you reuse most (as long as you don't use loads of soap and water for cleaning)" You'd have to use a lot of soap and water to justify throwing them away and using new ones. – Earthliŋ Jul 29 '15 at 18:45
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    @Earthliŋ You are right, the impact of the water and soap for cleaning is most likely small. I merely added that last sentence to show that if you want to make a fair comparison between reusable and disposable chopsticks, you need to take cleaning the reusable chopstick into account. – THelper Jul 30 '15 at 18:01
  • Maybe restaurants could just pour food into our mouths from tubes, like refuelling a car? Probably a lot cheaper to produce and distribute food that way, and no utensils or cleaning at all. (The point is to say that there are infinitely many ways to improve a situation, which people will refuse for a multitude of reasons, including conditioning or simple laziness. Darn those people anyway.) – user2423 Aug 8 '15 at 0:54

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