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Chinese to tax chopsticks?

March 2006

Can a chopstick tax help save China's forests?

Chinese to tax chopsticks

The Chinese government has announced that it is introducing a tax on the sale of disposable chopsticks (BBC news, 22 March 2006). The new 5% tax will be imposed on the 45 billion pairs of chopsticks that are currently used and thrown away each year (BBC - China introduces chopsticks tax).

Environmentalists have been concerned for some time with the growing volume of consumer waste and pollution being produced by this nation of 1.3 billion people. The new tax is a sign that the Chinese government is getting worried too!

But it is also an important indicator that China is well along the road towards economic development. As levels of consumption start to grow in developing nations, governments are able to raise more taxes. The money gained by government can then help pay for even better infrastructure and improved services such as education.

Writing about development

The new chopstick tax backs up two key points that A-level and GCSE geography students are usually taught on their courses:

(1) Economic development brings environmental costs as well as economic benefits. Responsible governments will recognise this and may begin to act more sustainably as time passes, usually by passing environmental laws.

(2) Development processes involve the operation of a multiplier effect. Growing wealth can drive other economic growth through both spending and a growing ability to tolerate taxation. In time, tax revenues may help foster a better-skilled, healthier and well-paid society of workers who can, in turn, pay even greater taxes as they purchase more and more goods and services! Thus the growth process becomes circular and self-sustaining.

However, China still has a long way to go before both Chinese environmental campaigners and international observers begin to feel better assured that its growth is not having a catastrophic effect on the environment. There are both local concerns (vast areas of land have been flooded by the construction of the Three Gorges dam) and global concerns (China’s growing use of fossil fuels is driving up global carbon emissions).

This impact is only going to grow, at least in the short-term. Within a decade, China is predicted to become the world’s second largest consumer of luxury goods, according to a new report by Ernst & Young (The Guardian, 17 September 2005). Recent reports in the newspapers have stated that:

  • China has 30 million affluent consumers
  • Tesco is opening 15 new hypermarkets in China
  • KFC has 1,300 Chinese stores, while McDonald’s now has 600
  • 1.8 trillion cigarettes were smoked in China last year
  • Prada opened 20 Chinese stores in 2005
  • It is the world’s third-largest market for new cars (after USA and Japan)

Clearly, China now has to address for the first time all of the same environmental, pollution and recycling concerns that European countries are already faced with. But all on a much larger scale, given that it is home to around three times the total number of people that live in the EU!

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