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.