Vancouver Sun

Building a future out of chopsticks


Behold the humble bamboo chopsticks.

Most people see them as disposable utensils, something to be used for their sushi lunch or Chinese takeout, then thrown away.

But in them, Felix Bock sees the future. A bamboo chopstick, he said, is almost a perfect raw material. Neatly tapered. No knots or cracks. Made with a fast-growing sustainabl­e resource.

“It’s just not justified we use them as chopsticks only,” said Bock, founder and CEO of ChopValue, a Vancouver-based company that collects used bamboo chopsticks from local restaurant­s and turns them into home decor, household items and furniture.

“When you look at these chopsticks that have travelled 9,000 kilometres from China to Vancouver, then used for 20 minutes, I think the waste of it all resonates with people.”

Bock, who hails from a small village in Germany, is a self-proclaimed bamboo enthusiast. A PhD student at the University of B.C. studying structural bamboo products, Bock initially struggled to connect his research to Vancouver, where bamboo trees don’t grow. The eureka moment came one night in 2016 while eating sushi at home with his girlfriend.

He was frustrated at the time, he recalled.

A project proposal to use wood from demolition and constructi­on sites had no takers in the industry. His girlfriend suggested he start with something smaller and more tangible: the chopsticks in their hands.

At first, Bock demurred. “But I couldn’t sleep at night because I did the math of how many Asian restaurant­s we have and how popular Asian cuisine is in Vancouver,” he said, estimating at the time about 100,000 chopsticks were thrown out daily in Metro Vancouver.

He invested $200 in cardboard bins, then he and Hugh Grady, an intern at the UBC lab-turnedfoun­ding partner at ChopValue, reached out to eateries in Kitsilano.

Two weeks later, their lab was overflowin­g with tens of thousands of chopsticks.

Two months later, ChopValue was incorporat­ed. Bock put his studies on the back burner (although he is still working on completing his PhD).

“Restaurant­s were waiting for their bins to get picked up,” he said. “I strongly felt the responsibi­lity that once you started you can’t stop anymore.”

Using a hydraulic hot press he designed, Bock turned the chopsticks into an eight-by-eight-inch engineered bamboo tile — the raw material for ChopValue’s array of products — using heat, steam, pressure and a water-based resin.

They quickly outgrew their small workshop in the False Creek flats and moved into a 2,000-squarefoot “micro factory” in south Vancouver.

Today, ChopValue collects 350,000 chopsticks per week from about 300 partners, including Vancouver Internatio­nal Airport and several Metro Vancouver malls. Bock estimated they’ve diverted more than three million chopsticks from the waste stream.

This year, the company has expanded to Victoria, Montreal and Los Angeles and now has 18 employees. The enterprise was cashflow positive from the start, said Bock, although it made very little money in the first year, plowing back every dollar earned into the company. In its second year, angel investors got on board.

This year, the company is aiming to bring in $1 million in revenue, said Bock. He declined to disclose how much the company made in previous years.

Its product line, which started with tiles and coasters, now includes wall decor, yoga blocks and furniture.

Each item comes labelled with its carbon footprint count, as well as the number of chopsticks it took to make. A set of coasters? Three hundred chopsticks. Hexagon tiles that can be displayed on the wall? Eighteen hundred chopsticks. A nine-foot showstoppe­r of a table? One hundred thousand chopsticks.

One of ChopValue’s biggest potentials, said Bock, is in designing premium products for the restaurant and hospitalit­y industry — the chopsticks going full circle, in a sense.

That’s already what has happened in some locations such as Pacific Poke, a local chain of poke restaurant­s, which collects chopsticks for ChopValue and also uses its products, including tabletops, wall art and cabinets.

Keeping their environmen­tal footprint in check is one of the reasons Bock decided to go with a franchise model to expand the concept — from collection and design to production and sales — to other cities instead of centralizi­ng manufactur­ing in one location, then shipping the products around the world.

“I knew I needed to do this for myself at least for a year … and show it’s feasible and has traction, that we are doing something right,” said Bock. Now that he knows it’s doable, Bock’s plan is to expand to 75 to 100 locations over the next three years.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface yet with the potential for this,” he said.

 ?? ARLEN REDEKOP ?? ChopValue founder Felix Bock recycles chopsticks that would otherwise be thrown away into items like this glass-topped table.
ARLEN REDEKOP ChopValue founder Felix Bock recycles chopsticks that would otherwise be thrown away into items like this glass-topped table.

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