Chop, chop: meet the innovator who recycled 32m chopsticks

Felix Böck transforms the utensils into everything from dining tables to staircases

Felix Böck of ChopValue. Photograph: ChopValue

Felix Böck of ChopValue. Photograph: ChopValue

 

The idea was born over trays of sushi. Felix Böck, then a PhD student at Canada’s University of British Columbia, was venting his frustration over the scant interest in his proposal to use waste wood from demolition and construction sites. How, he wondered, could he convince people that there’s no such thing as waste, but rather just wasted resources?

Chopsticks in hand, Thalia Otamendi, the woman who is now his fiancee, looked at him. “She said: ‘Felix, maybe you just have to start with something small,’” says Böck. “And maybe it’s the chopstick.”

He started working on the idea the next day, sketching out plans for ChopValue, a startup aimed at creating a second life for used chopsticks. The plans soon coalesced into actions; recycling bins were dropped off at restaurants across Vancouver, methods were perfected to clean the utensils and a process was developed to transform the chopsticks – most of which are made from bamboo – into sleek household items that range from tablet stands to tabletops.

Four years on, ChopValue has recycled more than 32 million chopsticks – diverting them from landfills and creating employment for 40 people. “These chopsticks travel 6,000 miles to arrive on your dining table for 20-30 minutes,” says Böck, 31. “You can’t possibly feel good about throwing them out afterwards.”

The startup has expanded its footprint across North America, with its process – which uses heat, steam and pressure to transform the chopsticks into wooden tiles – now also being used in Calgary, Montreal and Los Angeles.

Chopsticks are sourced from hundreds of restaurants as well as locations such as shopping centres, airports and universities; in Vancouver alone ChopValue says it collects about 350,000 used chopsticks a week.

“When you walk into a restaurant and you ask them to place a recycling bin for chopsticks, they still give you the exact same look as they gave me on day one,” says Böck. “I think it’s because it’s one of these little things that we neglect. But the moment someone reminds us of that problem that’s right in front of us, it creates that immediate Aha! moment.”

Wall decor by ChopValue. Photograph: ChopValue
Wall decor by ChopValue. Photograph: ChopValue
Workstation/desk by ChopValue. Photograph: ChopValue
Workstation/desk by ChopValue. Photograph: ChopValue

Among the first companies to collaborate with ChopValue was Pacific Poke, a chain of restaurants based in western Canada. “We thought it was a great idea. We were like, why didn’t anyone else think of this?” says co-founder Dong Lam. “We’re selling a couple of hundred bowls a day so you can imagine how many chopsticks that adds up to over time.”

The restaurant chain has become a fine example of the circular economy that ChopValue is seeking to foster, with most of its locations featuring artwork and tabletops made from chopsticks once used at the restaurant.

At ChopValue, the focus is now on exporting their model. “We do want to mass produce, just on a local scale,” says Böck. His aim is a network of franchises where chopsticks could be sourced from local restaurants and transformed in nearby microfactories with the finished products sold locally.

A chopstick staircase. Photograph: Paul Grdina/ChopValue
A chopstick staircase. Photograph: Paul Grdina/ChopValue

Currently, the company’s products are sold on its website and through partnerships with retailers such as Nordstrom in the US. With each item comes a hint of its previous life, detailing the 886 chopsticks that went into making a butcher’s block or the 9,600 chopsticks used for a work-from-home desk.

“We’ve made money since day one,” says Böck. “We obviously reinvested every dollar we made into growth because we feel that the responsibility right now is to expand the concept globally.”

His hope is that ChopValue – and the “crazy idea” behind it – will prompt people to reconsider what they see as waste. “There’s this cheesy saying that every small action matters,” he says. “But I think we’re proving that in a fairly practical and exciting way.” – Guardian

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.