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[As Seen on Culinaire Magazine] From Waste To Resource, One Chopstick At A Time

[As Seen on Culinaire Magazine] From Waste To Resource, One Chopstick At A Time

Here's the original article

Do you ever think about what happens to the chopsticks you use at the restaurant, or fast-food spot? Most of us don’t give it a thought, and neither did Calgary’s Joanne Dafoe–though she’s now on a mission to change that.

The Calgary-raised, former owner of a landscape design business says she’s always been a bit of an entrepreneur and ‘pie-in-the-sky’ dreamer, but it was while at home during the pandemic, when a different idea occurred to her.

“I loved design work but I remember saying I felt something else was out there for me,” recalls Dafoe. “Three days later I was introduced to ChopValue. Before I knew it, I was meeting founder Felix Bock at his microfactory and head office in Vancouver, and he asked if I wanted to be the first franchisee for the company. There’s that saying about putting things out into the universe – I felt it was happening right then for me.”

Dafoe remembers being impressed with Bock (a woodworking engineer with a PhD in bamboo) and his goal of creating high quality wood alternative products that save on carbon emissions at the local level and, cumulatively, on a global scale. Dafoe was quickly sold on the idea, and now, less than four years after signing on in December, 2020, the Calgary team (Dafoe, partner and son Mike Bodnar, his wife Kim and a total of seven employees), and 10 other global franchises are making sustainable manufacturing a reality, one chopstick at a time.

This is how it works: once a week, the ChopValue YYC driver picks up used bamboo and wood chopsticks from local businesses – at no charge – and, once they’re cleaned at the microfactory, turns them into minimalistic new products; everything from table tops and feature walls to cabinets, office desks, chopping boards, wall shelves, and even domino sets. 

“It’s about closing the loop, creating a circular economy that takes something from waste to resource. And by doing it all on a local level, we’re creating jobs right here, eliminating shipping issues and providing all the customer service/support a customer needs. The ‘made local’ approach is hugely important to us, and becoming more and more important to businesses and the public,” Dafoe says.

It’s those very things – the benefit of dealing with a local, family-run business, and having a passion for doing things right on the ‘green’ front that led Calgary restaurant owner Sarah Luong to be the first to sign on with ChopValue YYC a few years back. At her popular Vietnamese restaurants Pho Dau Bo and later Mot To, Luong says it’s been a no-brainer to get the roughly 1,000 pairs of used chopsticks picked up weekly By ChopValue YYC, saving on disposal costs for her and doing something positive in the process.

“It’s a win-win. I reached out after I read about ChopValue on social media, and I visited the factory and saw how hands-on Joanne’s family was. We’re a family-run business too, so I wanted to support that,” Luong says. “But it’s also meaningful for our business to be part of this awesome program and let customers know about it when they see our furniture made from the chopsticks–table-tops and a bar panel. They’re unique and beautiful – real conversation pieces, and it keeps the idea of green living top of mind.”

Dafoe points to tabletops, floating shelves and coffee bars created for McDonald’s restaurants in Calgary, and communal tables for Little Kitchen Academy cooking school in Edmonton as examples of collaborating with corporations with aligned values; those which are choosing sustainable options for their businesses.

ChopValue YYC employs one driver and four furniture makers who create custom-ordered pieces in a 4,000 square foot shop and showroom. And beyond pursuing partners in business (Kim’s special focus), Dafoe and family reach the public at local farmers’ markets and home and garden shows.

“We’re lucky to have manufacturing students from SAIT, including a red seal certified cabinet maker, help us create these unique, premium quality pieces. The growth is inspiring. People are asking about our products now,” Dafoe says, acknowledging that while custom-made bamboo furnishings can be more expensive, consumers are far more savvy today, understanding the benefits of buying local and reducing their carbon footprint.

To date, ChopValue YYC has acquired some 210 collection partners in the Calgary area (including Chinook Centre shopping mall), and 24 spots in Edmonton. As Alberta’s lone franchise (there are two in the Toronto area, and several across the globe – the US, Mexico, Bali, and Singapore), ChopValue YYC collects about 1,000 kg per month; that’s three million chopsticks – 75 per cent of which are bamboo.

“We know we’re making an impact – feeling the tractions. We started from ground zero but after three years of pounding the pavement, learning to be relentless and circling back with people, (even Calgary City Council and the federal government), people now say, ‘we’ve heard of you’. It’s what I had hoped for.”

Dafoe says starting a new business in her 50s initially caused her pause, but she saw the potential for growth (ChopValue YYC just celebrated its best quarter to date). And though starting a business is a 24/7 venture, Dafoe says doing work that is meaningful makes all the difference.

“I have two young grandkids, so my goal is to leave a legacy for them,” the now 53-year-old Dafoe says, adding it’s also about doing the best for her son, who put himself through university, ran his own sod installation business and became a geologist before adding duties with ChopValue alongside his mom.

“I’m so passionate about this – it checks all my boxes,” Dafoe says. "I never used to think that doing this with my family was important, but it is.” Dafoe’s daughter and her husband, who both work full time, also pitch in when needed, often helping put orders together and sort chopsticks on weekends.

“My daughter says, ‘Some moms and daughters go for brunch, but my mom and I sort chopsticks,'” Dafoe laughs. "But we talk non-stop – we get to visit, and the time goes by. It’s a totally unexpected thing. Who would’ve thought?”

“If I can run a green business and prosper, if I can show I’m thriving within a green community, it can motivate others to do the same. Has it been easy? Hell no. But people’s livelihoods depend on me, so I want to keep telling my story. And we’re just coming to a place where I can take a weekend off. Having people come to us about the program and the furniture; we can feel the traction now, and it’s inspiring.”

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