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

Shuswap Adventure Girl Sarah Tokarek has a particular passion for hiking trails around Blind Bay and the South Shuswap. (Contributed)
Shuswap mom helps others find their own outdoor adventures

Sarah Tokarek is Shuswap Adventure Girl, an online trail guide for the region

Protesters gather in front of the Vernon Law Courts in the final week of the trial of Curtis Sagmoen, Wednesday, Dec. 18. (Brendan Shykora - Morning Star)
Sagmoen to enter plea for assault charge involving North Okanagan RCMP

The offence allegedly took place on Oct. 29 in or near Spallumcheen

A health worker holds a vial of AstraZeneca vaccine to be administered to members of the police at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Mainz, Germany, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. (Andreas Arnold/dpa via AP)
43 new COVID-19 cases in Interior Health

368 cases in the region remain active

Salmon Arm Council will be considering on March 10, 2021 approval of the placing of a notice warning of building bylaw infractions on a local property. (File photo)
City of Salmon Arm takes action on reported building bylaw infractions

If final approval given by council, notice will alert prospective buyers to outstanding issues

The owner of this property at 2240 Highway 97B SE would like to subdivide the property to create a residence for her son so they can keep the farm going for the next generation. (City of Salmon Arm image)
Salmon Arm farm owner requests subdivision of land for family member

Creating two lots would mean son could help keep the farm productive

Health Minister Adrian Dix looks on as Dr. Bonnie Henry pauses for a moment as she gives her daily media briefing regarding COVID-19 for British Columbia in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
7 additional deaths and 542 new COVID-19 cases in B.C.

Provincial health officials reported 18 new COVID-19 cases linked to variants of concern

The man currently being sought by Oliver RCMP in connection to an assault and robbery at the BC Cannabis Store in Oliver. If you know the identity of the man, the RCMP would like to know. (RCMP)
South Okanagan police looking for man accused in robbery and assault at pot shop

The man allegedly assaulted an employee at the BC Cannabis Store

(Government of B.C.)
School bus fees are being charged to all riders in the Vernon School District. (Courtesy photo)
Parents pressure Vernon school board to curb bus fee hike

More than 1,200 signatures on petition against $200 rider fees, to be discussed at board meeting

(Aman Parhar/Omineca Express)
COVID-19 exposures confirmed at two Kelowna schools

Pearson Road Elementary, Rutland Senior Secondary confirm one case of the virus at each school

Backcountry skiers are dwarfed by the mountains as they make their way along a mountain ridge near McGillivray Pass Lodge located in the southern Chilcotin Mountains of British Columbia, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. Avalanche Canada has issued a special warning to people who use the backcountry in the mountains of western Alberta and eastern British Columbia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Avalanche Canada special warning for mountains in western Alberta, eastern B.C.

Avalanche Canada also says everyone in a backcountry party needs essential rescue gear

(Courtesy of West Kelowna Fire Rescue)
West Kelowna structure fire results in death of pets, injured firefighter

Crews arrived at the Ponderosa Rd. home to find the rear of the building engulfed in flames

Lisa Jilg is pictured at her store with signs requesting the donation of items for those struggling with mental health challenges, and those experiencing homelessness. (Contributed)
‘He just wanted to be accepted’: Okanagan mother opens up about son’s fatal overdose

Judgment toward those with mental health challenges needs to stop, says West Kelowna mother

A protest has been planned for March 5, 2020 over Penticton council’s decision to reject an application from BC Housing to keep an emergency winter shelter open over a year longer than originally planned. (Jesse Day - Western News)
‘Bring your tent’: Protest planned in Penticton’s Gyro Park over winter shelter closure

Protesters plan to show council ‘what the result of their decision will look like’

Most Read