Live in Vancouver long enough and you’ll soon find your kitchen drawers littered with packets and packets of single-use chopsticks.
It’s not the worst problem to have, given the amount of grade-A sushi, pho, and Chinese takeout you’re probably eating, but for local forestry student Felix Böck, the excess and throwaway rate of these bamboo utensils proved extremely wasteful.
“If you look at the chopstick, it’s actually the purest [bamboo] fibre you can get because it ends up in our food industry,” he tells the Straight by phone. “So it’s just ironic that we throw it away after half an hour of use.”
Born in Germany, Böck discovered the potential of bamboo while working for a wood and bio-energy business in Ethiopia four years ago. After graduating from Rosenheim University of Applied Sciences, he moved to Vancouver in 2014 to continue his studies in wood science and engineering at UBC.
It was then, when he was consuming copious amounts of sushi (“It’s a student- and budget-friendly food,” he says), that a light went off in his head.
Aided by a small team of co-op students and interns he had hired to assist in his PhD research, Böck began approaching various sushi, noodle, and ramen joints last summer with the goal of establishing a citywide chopstick-recycling program. The idea was to collect used bamboo chopsticks from local restaurants and transform them into sleek, sustainably produced furnishings and home décor objects. Fittingly, the startup was dubbed ChopValue.
“I thought we could capture that waste and…hopefully, tell an inspiring story,” explains Böck, who estimates that over 100,000 disposable chopsticks are sent to landfills by Vancouverites every day. “We’re turning something that we usually throw into the garbage into a new design product.”
In July, the engineer and carpenter by trade crafted his first items: wall tiles ($15 each) and drink coasters ($29 for a set of four) made from hundreds of expendable chopsticks that have been cleaned, covered in a water-based resin, oven-dried, and then hot-pressed into hexagonal and square shapes.
Playful shelving units ($34), tabletops (from $200), and side tables that use reclaimed-wood or stainless-steel bases (from $642) followed shortly afterward—each showcasing a caramelized-brown hue and the natural grain of the bamboo.
After earning the top prize in IDS Vancouver’s Prototype—a design competition between next-gen designers—last fall, ChopValue quickly outgrew its modest production space in False Creek Flats. Now based in South Vancouver, Böck and his team are preparing to unveil a recycled-bamboo yoga block this month.
Crafted in response to public demand, the distinctly West Coast bolsters are made of 800 to 1,000 chopsticks each. A line of office products and planters is also in the works and the company has expanded its operations to offer custom serving trays to its eatery partners.
“It kind of tells the story of the full cycle back to the market,” Böck says of the platters, “so the restaurants can design and customize their serving boards and tell their customers that they are made out of recycled chopsticks.”
According to Böck, ChopValue gathers up to 250,000 chopsticks a week from almost 100 participating food establishments in Metro Vancouver, including Benkei Ramen, Sushi California, and Pacific Poké. He admits that, at first, many restaurant owners respond to the concept with skepticism, but they tend to come around once they see how the startup helps reduce trash and garbage-tipping fees. Patrons are welcome to drop off their own used chopsticks at each spot.
“We explain to them [the restaurant owners] the process, we involve them in the design, we collaborate with them on…new products,” says Böck. “And that makes it exciting, because that’s when they understand the value.”
For the wood-science pro, the exhilaration comes in the form of giving a natural and underutilized resource new life. Not only is bamboo a sustainable material because of its organic growth, says Böck, but it lends itself well to home furnishings and décor due to its flexibility and high mechanical performance. It’s not so bad on the eyes, either.
“We are consuming so much material and so many products, so if we have the chance to reuse something that’s already around us, we don’t have to just dump it,” he says. “We really see the potential of using it for another life.”