Big in Japan: Making Biofuel Out of Used Chopsticks

Today’s ten-million yen trivia question is this:

How many disposable, wooden chopsticks are used each year in Japan?

Give up?

The answer is approximately 90,000 tons (81,646,000 kilograms) or approximately two-hundred pairs per person per year. Needless to say, the Japanese aren’t exactly the world’s greatest environmentalists!

Indeed, one of the biggest culture shocks foreigners experience upon arrival is the incredible amount of trash that the Japanese generate. For example, if you go to the convenience store to buy a bento or lunch box, it’ll be skillfully double or even triple bagged by the clerk. After unwrapping the endless layers of your bento, inside you’ll sometimes find as many as three pairs of chopsticks- just in case you feel like sharing your lunch with a few friends.

So, what can be done you ask – how about making biofuel?

Earlier this week, the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery announced plans to allocate funds to support nationwide chopstick recycling programs. The aim of the program is two-fold: the first is to raise public awareness about the need to conserve resources, particularly items that are a daily fixture in people’s lives. The second aim is to support projects by businesses and local governments to turn disposable chopsticks into biofuel.

Currently, used chopsticks are simply discarded in the burnable rubbish bin (one credit to the Japanese is that they routinely separate burnable and non-burnable garbage). In a country obsessed with hygiene and cleanliness, the idea of reusing chopsticks is unheard of, especially with the fear of pandemic illness on the rise such as SARS and avian flu. Indeed, environmentally conscious foreigners like myself who carry our own chopsticks around with us are usually the subject of intense ridicule!

However, the current plan is to install boxes to collect used chopsticks outside restaurants and convenience stores. Private contractors will then transport these boxes to special facilities where the chopsticks will be ground up and compressed into wooden pellets, which can be used as a high-energy fuel.

Typically, wooden pellets are formed using heat and pressure to compact sawdust and paper, though disposable chopsticks are clearly a more abundant resource. There is also hope that disposable chopsticks can be converted into ethanol, which is becoming an increasingly important additive to gasoline. Currently, there are approximately thirty facilities producing wooden pellets across the country, as well as ethanol-producing facilities in Osaka and Okayama.

The Ministry is hopeful that the program will also help raise consciousness about the social responsibility of large corporations across the country. This is particularly relevant as global climate will be a major topic on the agenda at the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized nations’ economic summit scheduled for June of 2008 in Hokkaido.

Furthermore, I think I can speak for everyone here in Tokyo that after suffering through one of the hottest summers on the book (I’m tired of sweating through everything I own), stepping up the fight against global warming is something all of us can agree on.

Japan may have sparkling whale-free seas, but at least there’s hope for the forests.

PS As a disclaimer, I am by no means knowledgeable on the process of making biofuel, so please feel free to comment on the efficacy of this program!

** Special thanks to Flickr users Rick (Chinese Lunch), MShades (Bento Box) and View-Askew (Pollution) **