Bamboo – used in chopsticks – is among the world’s most sustainable tree species, with coppices harvested in four-year rotations without destroying the trees’ root systems. (Pixabay photo)

Bamboo – used in chopsticks – is among the world’s most sustainable tree species, with coppices harvested in four-year rotations without destroying the trees’ root systems. (Pixabay photo)

Why this Canadian company wants your used chopsticks

Pre-pandemic, well over 100,000 wooden utensils like chopsticks were discarded daily in Vancouver

By Marc Fawcett-Atkinson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, National Observer

Last February, Felix Böck picked up a shipping container sent express from Disneyland and stuffed with a precious load: Single-use chopsticks the company couldn’t use because of a package design error.

The load was the first hint of a wooden tsunami for Böck, CEO of ChopValue, a Vancouver-based company that recuperates single-use chopsticks to turn them into everything from desks to dominoes. Since its founding in 2016, the company has kept millions of chopsticks out of landfills an effort, Böck said, to reduce waste produced by restaurants.

“We are a circular economy franchise. We identified the humble chopstick as one of the imported, disposable consumer items” ubiquitous in modern life, he said. “We thought it might be a really powerful tool to talk about underutilized resources and how much waste we have in our cities.”

Pre-pandemic, well over 100,000 wooden utensils like chopsticks were discarded daily in Vancouver, according to a 2018 study by Metro Vancouver. Most had been used an average of 20 minutes — after a roughly 9,000-kilometre journey from bamboo forests in China to restaurants in B.C.

Bamboo is among the world’s most sustainable tree species, with coppices harvested in four-year rotations without destroying the trees’ root systems. But even that breakneck rate of regrowth can’t make single-use chopsticks sustainable, Böck said.

Keeping them out of the landfills — where they decompose and produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas — and extending their useful life was his focus. Working with restaurants, he set up recycling bins and a collection system to gather the chopsticks their customers used. The collected wood was then brought to local manufacturing facilities to be transformed into more valuable goods, or “upcycled.”

Keeping those manufacturing facilities small and local is key, Böck said, as it allows more flexibility and provides local employment. It’s a model he hopes will be imitated by others aiming to set up manufacturing businesses.

The idea took off, drawing considerable media attention and expanding to Victoria, Montreal, and Los Angeles. In each city, they set up a full collection and manufacturing hub to reduce the transportation costs and emissions, according to a 2019 report by the company.

As of Jan. 4, the company reported recycling well over 32 million chopsticks, and more than half of that since mid-2019. While the pandemic has decimated restaurants, it has been a boon for ChopValue — and laid bare major flaws in the global chopstick supply chain, Böck said.

“We got in touch with all these big suppliers of chopsticks for the restaurant industry” when the pandemic hit last spring with hopes to glean chopsticks left unused by hard-hit restaurants, Böck said. “Imagine these thousands of chopsticks that are all individually branded. You obviously don’t deliver these overload chopsticks — which are perfectly fine chopsticks — to another restaurant that is differently branded.”

Without restaurant-goers to use them, those boxes of freshly manufactured chopsticks were destined for landfills.

New chopsticks are packaged in cardboard boxes lined with plastic, then each pair is protected by a small paper or plastic package, he said. Opening thousands of boxes of chopsticks to sort those materials and put them in the right waste stream — recycling for plastic and cardboard, compost for wood — is too much work. Had ChopValue not recuperated them, they would have probably ended up in a landfill.

Yet despite the surging business, Böck said the pandemic oversupply laid bare the vulnerabilities of the complex supply chains that move everything from chopsticks to carrots around the globe.

“What we learned through this pandemic is logistics have challenges, especially when we have to re-evaluate costs or priority goods,” he said. “It really, really interrupted so much of our supply chain. I hope there is a big transition … (to) local manufacturing.”

That could make it easier not only to recuperate and upcycle unused goods, as ChopValue has done but also allow for more control over what’s produced in the first place. Our supply chains haven’t always been so global: Canada’s chopsticks were produced here — at a factory in Fort Nelson, B.C. — until the late 1990s.

It’s that vision — more small, local manufacturers and less reliance on vulnerable global supply chains — Böck hopes his chopsticks will inspire.

“My vision is to have mass manufacturing made local,” he said.

Trending Now

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

df
Missionites protest logging of old-growth forests outside MLA Pam Alexis’ office

Protests in solidarity with logging blockaders on Vancouver Island; injunction heard in court today

Alan Pryor in 2015, during the Agassiz Fire Department’s 70th year. (Greg Laychak/The Observer)
Agassiz fireman celebrates 51 years at the hall

Al Pryor has been a key member in the Agassiz Fire Department since he was 16

Mike Bismeyer of Abbotsford is the recipient of the national Savita Shah Award for his work promoting kindness and anti-bullying initiatives.
Abbotsford man who was bullied as a teen receives national kindness award

Mike Bismeyer is one of two Canadians to earn Savita Shah Award

RCMP were on scene under the Menzies Street bridge in Chilliwack on Thursday, March 4, 2021 where a body was found. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
UPDATE: Body found under Menzies bridge in Chilliwack that of man in 20s

Death not considered suspicious, said Chilliwack RCMP

The public survey of the 76-acre area Parr Neighbourhood will help municipal staff make policy decisions on future development. District of Mission image.
The public survey of the 76-acre area Parr Neighbourhood will help municipal staff make policy decisions on future development. District of Mission image.
Parr locals want to keep neighbourhood green, avoid densification, survey says

Mission council presented with results of a public survey on future development of 76-acre area

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry head for the B.C. legislature press theatre to give a daily update on the COVID-19 pandemic, April 6, 2020. (B.C. government)
B.C. nears 300,000 COVID-19 vaccinations, essential workers next

564 new cases, four deaths, no new outbreaks Thursday

Municipal Affairs Minister Josie Osborne speaks in the B.C. legislature, March 4, 2021. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals, NDP sing in harmony on local election reforms

Bill regulates paid canvassers, allows people in condo buildings

(National Emergency Management Agency)
No tsunami risk to B.C. from powerful New Zealand earthquake: officials

An 8.1 magnitude earthquake shook the north of New Zealand Thursday morning

(AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)
Pandemic stress, isolation key factors as to why Canadians turned to cannabis, alcohol

Study found that isolation played key role in Canadians’ substance use

Burnaby Mounties responded to 56 complaints and issued 10 tickets to people flouting COVID-19 restrictions in February. (Patrick Davies/100 Mile Free Press)
COVID denier fined $2,300 for hosting gathering in her home: Burnaby RCMP

The woman told Mounties she does not believe the pandemic is real

Grand Forks’ Gary Smith stands in front of his Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster float. Photo: Submitted
Grand Forks’ Flying Spaghetti Monster leader still boiling over driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith, head of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster of B.C., said he has since spoken to lawyers

RCMP members responded to calls of a man-down at Landsdowne mall in Richmond Wednesday afternoon. The 40-year-old was suffering from stab wounds. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man in critical condition following afternoon attack outside Richmond mall: RCMP

The Vancouver resident was found lying injured outside Richmond’s Lansdowne Centre

A Cowichan Valley mom is wondering why masks haven’t been mandated for elementary schools. (Metro Creative photo)
B.C. mom frustrated by lack of mask mandate for elementary students

“Do we want to wait until we end up like Fraser Health?”

Most Read