[As seen on ZEIT SPRACHEN - Business Spotlight] Giving chopsticks a second chance
Holzingenieur Felix Böck macht aus Essstäbchen
Möbel und Dekostücke. Damit schenkt er dem
Einwegbesteck ein zweites Leben.
Von MELITA CAMERON-WOOD
Sitting in a Japanese restaurant in Vancouver, Canada, Felix Böck looked at the chopsticks in his hand and realized something wasn’t right. A professional wood engineer, Böck had just spent the day at a seminar where he had been speaking about wood-waste solutions in the construction industry. Chopsticks are used by about a third of the world’s population every day. Many of them are the disposable kind, made of wood, that end up in landfills. After a quick calculation on a napkin, Böck estimated that about 100,000 chopsticks were being thrown out every day in Vancouver alone. “Sometimes, bitterness has to be turned into motivation and new ideas,” Böck told Business Spotlight. “I thought we have to start with something small and relatable. The next day, we started collecting chopsticks.”
Creating a circular economy
And so, in 2016, the start-up ChopValue was created. Böck, who was born in Germany but now lives in Vancouver, began by collecting used chopsticks from about a dozen restaurants. “Many consumers don’t realize that, in restaurants, there are thousands, if not millions, of chopsticks,” Böck says. “In those kinds of volumes, they don’t compost well, and most restaurants throw them into the general garbage. That means this valuable resource, which travelled thousands of miles from Asia to be used for 20 to 30 minutes, ends up in the trash.”
“In restaurants, there are thousands, if not millions, of chopsticks”
Böck initially stored the chopsticks in his business partner’s parents’ backyard. Before they knew it, they had a mountain of 160,000 chopsticks — a large enough volume to start repurposing them into new wood products. The company now makes high-quality homewares, coffee tables and even office furniture out of recycled chopsticks.
Without initial venture capital or savings, Böck worked hard to turn his idea into reality, as he wanted to develop a fully functioning business before approaching potential investors. “For the first three years, I worked many jobs at the same time to be able to afford the business and to pay my first full-time employees,” Böck recalls.
Within three months, the company’s first microfactory began its work. After being bathed in a water-based resin, the chopsticks are dried and then hot-pressed into wooden tiles, which form the modular component of all the products. Today, the Vancouver microfactory processes around 350,000 chopsticks a week, creating a circular economy for this material.
As the company expanded, Böck worried that the carbon emissions from logistics might defeat the purpose of making a sustainable product. “We thought, ‘Do we build a big factory and ship chopsticks from all over the world to Vancouver and keep it to ourselves? Or do we create a decentralized model with microfactories as close as possible to the resource and the end product?’” he says.
After choosing a decentralized model, ChopValue now has a franchise network of 60 microfactories in development in locations such as Boston, Singapore and Mexico City. “The goal is to have a microfactory in every city in the world,” says Böck. The microfactories are designed to use as little energy and as few resources as possible.
“I started this business out of a passion for the raw material,” Böck says. “Today, I feel more climate anxiety and a responsibility to make a positive change. If we can make products out of waste, then why are we cutting down virgin materials? It just doesn’t make sense.”