Numbers rarely make for good company. They’re confusing, not particularly pleasing to look at, and when you introduce them to your friends, they don’t even bother to dress up nice. Brad Pitt found out in Moneyball. As he tried to sell his team of baseball scouts on the concept of batting averages, they looked back bewildered. You knew a good baseball player through the shape of his jawline and his proclivity for partying — numbers had nothing to do with it.
In 2016, wood engineer Felix Böck found himself in a similar situation. Pursuing his PhD in Vancouver, he discovered that the city annually produced 600,000 tonnes of construction waste, all bound for landfills. For him this was a startling revelation, but others in the wood industry didn’t seem to share the concern. “What does that have to do with us?” they wondered. It frustrated Böck to no end that his project proposals fell on deaf ears as he suggested putting discarded material to new use. “I had to find a better way,” he explains. “To communicate, in an easily digestible format, what a devastating impact this waste has on the environment.”
His search ended over a dinner-table conversation which entailed the hallmark of any great idea — it felt absolutely ridiculous at the time. With an empty plate, a full stomach, but chopsticks still in hand (he’d been eating sushi), Böck set out to build his empire. “I set my mind on a new goal,” he says. “I decided I’d recycle used chopsticks to show everyone that it was possible to create a sustainable business model while utilising neglected resources.”
It was a step back from construction waste, but these chopsticks were ending up in landfills too — over 100,000 a day in Metro Vancouver alone. Plus, if this worked, it could help convince the industry on the idea of a circular economy, in a way which number and statistics never could.
Böck’s time spent researching bamboo composite materials came in handy as he began figuring out the logistics. “Using chopsticks as a starting point for a newly engineered material — they’re actually ideal in size, shape and consistency,” he says. “We’re able to densify their properties by treating them to high pressure alongside a water-based resin. They’re also a very sustainable resource as they’re made out of bamboo, one of the fastest-growing woody plants.”
“Consumers are becoming increasingly aware. They're listing environmental sustainability and social issues as important considerations when purchasing products."
With the material ready for use, that only left the matter of sourcing used chopsticks, which proved easy enough. Restaurants were eager to support the mission and readily agreed to partner with Böck as he initiated a chopstick collection programme in a popular dining district of the city.
He named his company ChopValue, which, in just over four years of existence, has recycled and transformed over 32 million chopsticks. ChopValue’s products span across homeware, office and decorative needs, living by a minimalistic design philosophy. The production is completed in microfactories using only locally available resources.
“It’s vital to reduce the impact of climate change,” says Böck. “There are no additional benefits to using virgin materials over a neglected resource, but the former is far more harmful to the planet. With the circular economy, we can minimise waste and lower CO2 emissions while providing customers with innovative, durable products at the same time.”
Now expanding globally using a franchise model, ChopValue plans to stay efficient and carbon-negative by running operations closer to its customers and suppliers. The company is leading by example and recent trends suggest that others might finally be convinced to follow.
“Consumers are becoming increasingly aware,” explains ChopValue’s marketing manager, Alison Lee. “They’re listing environmental sustainability and social issues as important considerations when purchasing products. Retailers are taking notice too, and we’ve been fortunate to be stocked at established stores such as Nordstrom and Hudson’s Bay. We’re hoping that with our story, we can educate, inspire, and set an example that resource efficiency thinking should simply be the norm.”
ChopValue recently announced their first international expansion to Singapore.