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

RCMP are searching for Philip Toner, who is a ‘person of interest’ in the investigation of a suspicious death in Kootenay National Park last week. Photo courtesy BC RCMP.
RCMP identify ‘person of interest’ in Kootenay National Park suspicious death

Police are looking for Philip Toner, who was known to a woman found dead near Radium last week

The southern mountain caribou, an iconic species for the Splatsin First Nation, is threatened with extinction, much to the dismay of the First Nation. (Province of B.C. photo)
Splatsin First Nation concerned over dwindling caribou herd

Southern mountain caribou at risk of extinction, will struggle to recover without habitat protection and restoration action - report

FILE - In this April 19, 2021, file photo, Keidy Ventura, 17, receives her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in West New York, N.J. States across the country are dramatically scaling back their COVID-19 vaccine orders as interest in the shots wanes, putting the goal of herd immunity further out of reach. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
5 more deaths, 131 new cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health over the weekend

Those 18-years and older in high-transmission neighbourhoods can register for the vaccine

Five-year-old Bayne Krause poses for a photo with his mom Marianne. Bayne’s shirt reads, ‘I have Cystic Fibrosis. Help keep me healthy, please social distance.’ Photo: Laurie Tritschler
West Kootenay mom promotes awareness of cystic fibrosis

Marianne Krause wants people to know what it’s like for her five-year-old son to live with CF

Sisters Audrey Cunningham and Donna Erdman, join the Vernon Kalamalka Chorus singing in their cars, tuned into the radio, under the direction of Debbie Parmenter. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
VIDEO: Okanagan choir steers around COVID with ‘carbershop’ twist

Singers find a unique way to practice during pandemic restrictions

Google
Threats against Kamloops school forces a hold and secure

The threats were made against Brock Middle School

The majority of city council votes in favour of this design for a new Salmon Arm flag on Monday, May 10, 2021. (City of Salmon Arm image)
Majority of council salutes new flag for Salmon Arm

Two councillors raise concerns about logo being too corporate for a flag

(Pixabay)
B.C. doctors could face consequences for spreading COVID misinformation: college

College says doctors have a higher level of responsibility to not spread incorrect information

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives his COVID-19 AstraZeneca vaccination in Ottawa, Friday, April 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
75% of Canadians need 1st vaccine dose to have more normal summer: Trudeau

The country is on track to hit a major milestone on the road to COVID-19 herd immunity Tuesday, with 40% vaccinated with a 1st dose

A black bear, dubbed Huckleberry by Deep Cove, B.C., residents died on July 31, 2020, after becoming conditioned to food and humans. (North Shore Black Bear Society photo)
Fewer dead bears, more fines: Advocates call for B.C. conservation officer reform

B.C. Bear Alliance wants to see body cameras on conservation officers after more than 600 black bears were killed this past year

Friends Fraser O'Brien, Chris and Ben Reinhardt and Youngbin Kim enjoy a game of hockey on Okanagan Lake off Kin Beach this past winter. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Synthetic ice scores outdoor rink applause from Vernon

A new year-round rink could make its way to Polson, Kin Beach or Kin Racetrack

Minister of Health Patty Hajdu responds to a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Drug users were shut out of Vancouver’s decriminalization proposal, critics say, demanding redo

The coalition is asking the city to raise the proposed drug thresholds from a 3-day supply

Kelowna seen from the top of Knox Mountain. (Phil McLachlan - Capital News file)
Kelowna ranked 12th best city in Canada for young people to work

Cities were evaluated by job availability, cost of living, public health, equity & inclusion and more

Most Read