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Saturday, May 15, 2010

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Disposing of a sticky problem


The answer to the disposable chopsticks problem is now at hand. And it always has been. We should all just eat with our fingers.

And I knew disposable chopsticks were a problem the minute I laid eyes on them, which was at lunch on my very first day in Japan.

I didn't know they broke in two and therefore used a double set. The waitress rushed to my aid and taught me how to crack them apart.

Upon which I found it much easier to drop noodles in my lap.

"Yeah, I hate waribashi, says an old gaijin friend. "I can't stand that raw woody flavor. So I always dunk them in my beer before I pick up food."

A smart man and a lesson learned. Yes, I now do the same with my fingers.

And what is the problem with disposable chopsticks? Aren't they sensible and dispensable? And therefore defensible?

All of which rhyme with reprehensible. Which becomes clear when you realize Japan snaps away about 24 billion pairs of such chopsticks a year. That's right — a year!

Over a decade that adds up to about 800 trillion. You do the math. (Clearly, I can't).

People tell me this all began a couple of centuries back, as a way to recycle wood. People also tell me the Chinese dispose of even more — 45 billion a year — as if in some sort of competition. A competition in which the real losers here are not the Japanese but rather the Asian trees which sacrifice themselves for lunchtime convenience.

"But," says a salaryman in downtown Tokyo, "who needs trees when you have concrete?"

The easy answer to this awful environmental quandary is to do what many people do already. That being to avoid waribashi and carry non-disposable chopsticks with them wherever they go.

My very clever wife does this and again I admit I have learned. I do the same with my fingers.

Yet, I sense the conservationists need some creative help. So here are some out-of-the-box solutions on how to handle this sticky problem.

Art: Disposable chopsticks remind me of popsicle sticks, which were a staple of my elementary school art classes, where we put them to: 1) constructive use by making handy items such as picture frames; and 2) destructive use by launching paper wads at a girl named Debbie DeMay.

No, I am not suggesting Japan go after Debbie. But, hey, this nation is camera cuckoo. Plus everyone gives gifts. And a used-chopstick picture frame can be a very tasteful gift, especially if you leave the chopsticks unwashed.

But picture frames are just scratching the surface. I am talking about a whole new art genre. Sort of like ikebana, only with waribashi — ikebashi.

Picture this: You walk into this swank office building and there, in the alcove, instead of a stunning arrangement of orchids and bluebells, dangles a stringy mobile of used-up chopsticks.

OK, maybe it lacks the total wabi-sabi mood. More like, say, a wasabi mood. But it could catch on. We could have schools of ikebashi art. And then licensing steps for teachers. With money involved.

I have noticed that Japanese are cuckoo for money, even more than for cameras. So it might work. And Japan would have that much fewer chopsticks to worry about.

Engineering: In my narrow mind it is not such an enormous step from picture frames to A-frames. Why not use chopsticks in actual building? I know they're small. But to me that only means more nails.

To start, I suggest a bridge. We could call it the "Bento Bridge." We could build it from Kyushu to South Korea with the Koreans tossing in some metal chopsticks for the pylons.

Of course, the counter argument here is why build bridges when — with billions of chopsticks a year — you're already producing landfill. Sooner or later the bridge will be obsolete.

OK then. How about little log cabin-style chopstick houses? We can coat the floors with glue and use them to attract roaches instilled with the pioneer spirit.

And there is nothing worse than a pioneer-minded roach. "Pestward Ho!" is their motto.

And when they're dead we can make roach cemeteries with graves marked by crosses made with used waribashi.

Now I do not wish to imply an afterlife for roaches — heaven forbid. Rather I would hope to send the little buggers a symbolic message. Enter here and Boot Hill — the chopstick version — awaits.

Used waribashi might be employed in other ways as well. Like as earplugs in noodle shops. Or for Pocky-like snacks for people who like the chocolate coating but not the cookie core. And what's a tongue splinter to a true chocoholic?

But the ultimate answer for what to do with all these used chopsticks is . . .

Whittling! What else?

Japan's elderly could whittle waribashi all day. Making tons of yakitori skewers, marshmallow roasters and so on.

As whittling fodder, used waribashi are perfect! How perfect?

This time not even my fingers can compete.



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