Creating a circular economy out of bamboo chopsticks
The CEO of Canada-based firm ChopValue, Felix Böck, talks to INBAR about his firm’s vision for a circular economy
He may have started out as a wood engineer, but Felix Böck says that “in Vancouver, people only know me as the chopstick guy.” Since founding ChopValue – a Canada-based company that collects used bamboo chopsticks from local restaurants, and turns them into home décor, household items and furniture – Böck has attracted a lot of press. Being recognised on the street is “a really fun experience”, he admits.
ChopValue is certainly a brand which commands attention, in a climate fixated with plastic waste and single-use products. Globally, we get through an estimated 1.5 billion single-use chopsticks per week. China alone is producing 80 billion bamboo chopsticks a year. Böck says his lightbulb moment came while eating sushi with his partner, following some failed attempts to set up a wood recycling project. It was a matter of “turning a moment of frustration into motivation”, he says. “The wood industry in general is very conservative; it takes a lot of time to actually implement a new technology.” In single-use bamboo chopsticks, Böck saw the opportunity to be more efficient with the resources we have.
The process behind ChopValue is ingeniously simple. The company urges restaurants to keep their used bamboo chopsticks, which it then collects, dries and compresses in a hydraulic press. The result is a dense, uniform material of about 15 milimetre thickness, made using the 350,000 chopsticks which pour in per week.
ChopValue’s bamboo products have similar properties to engineered bamboo products on the market, including hardness, good surface performance and high tensile strength. But it’s the eye-catching aesthetics which many of ChopValue’s clients find most interesting. To date, some of ChopValue’s products include tabletops and wall designs in restaurants and resorts. Customers can also buy a range of smaller products, such as coasters and yoga blocks, via its online shop.
Reducing carbon emissions is a key part of the company’s brand. “We do our research”, Böck emphasises. “We measure every single movement of the company process – we have trackers on our vehicles and machines, we know how much we are spending on electricity and waste, and all cut-off materials are made into other products [like keychains].” Crucially, the company also uses a water-based resin to bind the chopsticks together. Resin in an important component of engineered wood products – ChopValue’s resin is manufactured in collaboration with BASF Chemicals and marks a step forward in more eco-friendly bamboo product creations, which can ultimately be recycled.
By sticking to low-carbon production processes, and by saving chopsticks being sent to landfill, ChopValue estimates they can save over 300 kg of CO2 for a thirteen-foot table top (made using 240,000 chopsticks). That’s about the same amount of energy that an average North American house will use in a week.
ChopValue’s plans for expansion are similarly innovative. Over the next 3 years, Böck hopes the company will spread across 75 to 100 locations in Canada, the USA, South America and Asia. He describes his business as “an exciting concept for small or medium sized business owners”, who will be able to establish their own microfactories using technical and marketing support from ChopValue. While the microfactory owners keep 100 percent of their profits, ChopValue benefits from the branding. And by keeping production local, the company can reduce emissions from transporting products around the world. “Step by step we believe people can set an example with our concept.”
Böck’s interest in bamboo began early in his career when he moved to Ethiopia, an area rich in bamboo resources, helping local companies transition from tropical wood to bamboo. “I learned all about bamboo as a resource, about supply issues, and I went for the first time to China to learn about the industry there.” He describes the major issue facing bamboo start ups as a problem with fluctuating supply. “You need to have a sustainably managed, stable supply of bamboo forest or plantation. It takes more education than you would think.” By recycling used chopsticks, of which there is an enormous supply, ChopValue neatly circumvents this problem – and makes a real contribution to more efficient resource use.
Before he became the founder and CEO of ChopValue, Felix Böck admits having to google the term “circular economy.” Now, his company ethos should inspire a generation of new business owners and consumers to build a sustainable future out of used chopsticks.
Find out more about ChopValue’s work here.
Felix spoke at the Global Bamboo and Rattan Congress in June 2018, co-organised by INBAR and China’s National Forestry and Grassland Administration. Find out more about the Congress, and INBAR’s work, here.