As seen on Tatler: How I’m Making It: How This Entrepreneur Turns Chopsticks Into Gorgeous Furniture
Fancy a desk, shelf or cheese board made of chopsticks? Here’s how Evelyn Hew is championing a circular environment by tapping onto one of Singapore’s biggest waste offenders
Did you know that an estimated 500,000 disposable chopsticks are discarded in Singapore every day?
That number grows to a staggering 1.5 billion on a global scale, according to ChopValue, a sustainable home decor company.
“Not to mention that 40 per cent of it is carbon, so when you send it to the incineration plant, you immediately add to climate destruction,” says Evelyn Hew, the managing director of ChopValue Singapore. “Basically, each chopstick is about three grams which means that if we incinerate the estimated 500,000 per day, we release 600 kg of carbon into the atmosphere daily. For reference, a mature tree sequesters 21 kg of carbon per year, so we are essentially cancelling out the work of 28 trees daily.”
While this is a significant issue, Hew is determined to make a dent, however small, in the industry and to create a circular economy with her company, which takes disposable chopsticks and turns them into furniture, accessories and games.
The company, which was originally founded by Felix Böck in 2016 in Vancouver, is the world’s first circular economy brand that designs and manufactures products completely from recycled chopsticks. In 2021, Hew brought the business into Singapore after learning about how bad the waste situation was here. Here’s how she did it.
“My interest in sustainability began in 2015 when I founded a sustainability consultancy called Smartcity Solutions, which uses tech to provide solutions to the waste management industry,” explained Hew.
“It was here that I saw first-hand the waste problem as I dealt with it day in and day out. My husband and I, who worked on the consultancy together, started learning more about the environmental challenges that mankind has created, from pollution to waste,” she continued. She added that as a mum of three herself, she was also concerned about her kids growing up in a place where the environment was steadily degrading.
“We started wondering if we could do something about this. We wanted to create a business that would provide for our family, help the environment and inspire others to join in the fight for change,” said Hew. As she and her husband began searching for solutions, they found a video of ChopValue.
“It seemed like just what Singapore needed to create a circular economy and so I decided to connect with Felix,” said Hew. She made contact with Böck in early 2021 and within weeks, the pair had a workable solution to bring Böck’s circular economy franchise to Southeast Asia.
The first step to achieving this was, of course, collecting as many disposable chopsticks as they could find.
“We went out of our way to speak to restaurant owners and establishments that use disposable chopsticks. We also leveraged media coverage and our supporters who played a huge role in spreading the word,” shared Hew. She added that today, the group collects around 500 kg of chopsticks a week.
“So we first sort them into different lengths and materials, and then we apply an eco-friendly water-based resin to the sticks. We then bake them in an oven to sanitise them for several hours, before using a press to densify the material. This forms our basic building blocks. These can then be used to craft coasters, 15-meter feature walls and more,” Hew explained.
Since its launch, Hew is proud to tell us that globally, Chopvalue has upcycled 77 million chopsticks and stored 105 tonnes of carbon in functional products such as shelves, desks, cheese boards and more. They have also contributed significantly to educating the general public about the dangers of climate change and how individuals can help in their own capacity.
She does this all while also juggling three children, her family, personal life and more. Below, we speak to Hew to find out how she makes it work.
What is a typical morning like for you?
Evelyn Hew (EH): I meet the new day at 5.45 am and drag my eldest child out of bed. We leave our home together at 6.30 am and thankfully, school is just a short distance away. I’m back at home by 7 am and I then get ready for work, have breakfast and get my youngest two children out of the house, into the car and off to school, which again thankfully is nearby. I always reach ChopValue’s microfactory by 9 am.
What do you usually have for breakfast?
EH: Two half-boiled eggs and a cup of coffee.
What does a standard work day look like for you?
EH: At ChopValue, there really isn’t a standard day. Every day is different and it's always filled with meetings, both virtually and face to face with clients, restaurant partners, industry colleagues, investors and especially people with a passion for sustainability.
Very often, you can find me at sustainability-themed events as well. I try to batch respond to all emails, LinkedIn messages and internal team meetings every alternate morning. It works because if there is anything urgent, people usually WhatsApp me.
I am always out in the afternoons, taking meetings all over the island. If there isn’t a meeting, I try to visit our restaurant partners. I aim to get back by 5 pm to get my kids from school and after a quick break, we dive into homework together.
How would you describe your working style?
EH: I tend to be organised and I like batching things together. I find this very efficient. Of course, it doesn’t always go to plan, and sometimes I just have to follow where the day takes me. Most of my work is meeting people, and I love networking and discovering new views and opinions, so usually, I naturally take a very social approach to my work.
What time do you usually have lunch?
EH: I don’t usually have lunch but when I get hungry, I may grab a soup or salad.
Free time: overrated or underrated? Why?
EH: Definitely underrated. We all need free time. To take a step back and look at the bigger picture, to identify the important things to both work and family and sometimes just to recharge. It’s really a scarcity and it is treasured.
How do you achieve a work-life balance? How do you set boundaries?
EH: I have to thank my husband for this. We share responsibilities and duties when it comes to the family, taking turns to tend to the family and business on different days and times. We usually reunite as a family on Sundays where we spend time lazing and recharging.
How do you chase your dreams?
EH: Wholeheartedly, with tunnel vision and thick skin.
Risks: should you take them? Why or why not?
EH: It really depends on the reward. Are you making the world a better place? Are you creating a better future? If profit is the only goal, many risks are not worth it for us.
How do you deal with your shortcomings?
EH: I burden my husband with them. Just joking. That’s why the team is important. I have no idea about woodworking. But I have a fantastic team that does. So we leverage off each other to bring something really cool to the market.
What is the best piece of advice that you have ever gotten?
EH: My father has said this to me, and I will always remember it. It is in Mandarin but translated it says, “No matter where you fall, you stand up from there.”
What is an idea/thought that you heard recently, that you thought was interesting?
EH: It's not very recent, but I watched a Netflix documentary, Inside Bill Gates’ Mind. He said that climate change can be solved by nuclear energy. It was very popular and I am just curious if we as a human race can actually make this a reality without creating more harm than good.
How do you unplug?
EH: I travel. I love going to see new places and unplugging from the world. It is really a luxury to do so now.
How do you stay grounded?
EH: I don’t really chase lofty things and even the media attention we have been receiving, I see it as an avenue for environmental education. Even if there are influences outside, my three kids and my husband will always show me what is real and what is not.
How do you manage stress?
EH: I listen to music a lot as music has always been soothing for me ever since I was young. Occasionally, I do enjoy a good whisky.
How do you stay motivated?
EH: My family has always been my rock and if you are passionate about something, motivation comes naturally.
Do you have moments of doubt and how do you overcome them?
EH: Yes. Definitely. Both my husband and I have moments of doubt and despair. Luckily we never have them at the same time. If he is down, I pick him up. If I am down, he has his way of picking me up.
What is the last thing you do before you go to bed?
EH: Kiss my kids goodnight.