The country's wooden chopsticks industry on Friday defended its disposable utensils after growing calls for a boycott on health and environmental grounds.
"Our disposable chopsticks are mass-produced from birch or poplar trees, which grow fast and have no economic value otherwise," said Lian Guang, president of the Wooden Chopsticks Trade Association in Heilongjiang province.
Lian said there is "no better substitute" for wooden disposable chopsticks, with melamine-resin chopsticks posing sanitary problems because of their "high formaldehyde content".
He was responding to reports of Vice-Minister of Commerce Jiang Zengwei calling for restaurant owners and diners to abandon the use of disposable chopsticks.
Jiang has suggested his ministry, the national quality surveillance agency and the State Administration for Industry and Commerce may impose a regulation to that effect.
The idea has fueled fierce debate. An online poll by major information portal Sina.com on Friday of 5,807 online users showed 84.2 percent supported the end of disposable chopsticks. Another 2.4 percent were undecided.
Of those polled, 13.4 percent supported the use of disposable chopsticks for health reasons and convenience.
Beijinger Yang Jie, a 28-year-old man studying at a university in the United States, said the consumption of wood for chopsticks was faster than the speed of forests' growth.
"Nature will wreak its vengeance on humans if we continue to harm it for our own economic benefit," he said.
But Sun Jun, a 28-year-old Beijinger working for a patent agency, disagreed.
"Most people prefer to use such items for hygiene reasons not every restaurant can provide me with a clean substitute."
Qiao Jie, general secretary of the China Cuisine Association, told China Daily the group will urge restaurants to become "more environmentally friendly and energy efficient" by encouraging fewer disposable chopsticks.
To help discourage the use of wooden chopsticks and protect timber resources, the government imposed a 5 percent consumption tax on their use in April 2007.
Since last year, more than 1,000 restaurants in Guangzhou and 300 restaurants in Beijing have answered the government's call to stop providing disposable chopsticks.
Industry association president Lian Guang said disposable chopsticks will be hard to replace.
"The industry provides 300,000 jobs for Chinese workers and it exports products to more than 20 countries, raking in about $200 million every year," Lian said.
About 40 percent of the industry's products are used domestically, he added.