Finding Value Even After the Sushi is Done
May 17, 2017
If you recently visited any of the restaurants listed on the map below, you may have seen a bin for collecting used chopsticks. Once a week, Felix Böck drives his truck, affectionately named “Pablo the ChopMobil,” to each of these partner restaurants to collect chopsticks, then he upcycles them into beautiful products at a small production facility in South Vancouver. Three to five businesses sign up each week through word of mouth, and usually five a week sign up as a result of active outreach.
Felix is the founder of ChopValue, a Vancouver-based product engineering + design startup that has identified used bamboo and wood chopsticks as a valuable resource. It all began when Felix was working towards his PhD at UBC in the Faculty of Forestry. While researching the potential of structural bamboo and its connection to sustainable business opportunities in developing countries, many people asked Felix why he was studying bamboo (a non-native species) in Vancouver. He didn’t have an answer for them, but during this time, he became adept at designing and engineering equipment that uses bamboo as a resource in many different ways. One day, his girlfriend’s love for sushi prompted him to press together some used chopsticks and produced a highly densified bamboo tile.
These tiles which bridge performance and design can be used in a multitude of applications including coasters, tabletops, flooring, and, most recently, a wooden/bamboo yoga block. Never did Felix think that recycling chopsticks could become a viable business. However, this narrative of chopstick waste to material resource clearly resonated with others, and with approximately 100,000 chopsticks going into Vancouver landfills daily to fuel Vancouver’s fast Asian cuisine addiction, this is certainly a material worth investigating as a resource.
Felix understands that ChopValue works because its story is so quintessentially Vancouver, a city known for its sustainability initiatives but haunted by its waste. It’s a guilt that almost every Vancouverite can relate to, throwing out wooden chopsticks after a quick lunch of California rolls and edamame. Even if they end up in the compost pile, a better alternative to the garbage can, all the resources and energy used to produce these chopsticks is lost. ChopValue offers an alternative future to these chopsticks after their short lifespan as disposable utensils has ended.
At the six month mark, ChopValue is already out of the red, an impressive feat for a startup. In their next quarter, Felix hopes that the business will become profitable. Considering that operations are only at one-third capacity for how much material they could be processing, there is a lot of room to grow. Felix is charismatic yet humble about ChopValue’s success. He admits that it can be lonely working as an innovation startup within the BC’s relatively conservative wood and lumber industry. However, when over 100 interested businesses, students, and members of the public show up to your factory opening, it is clear he has many allies.
“To be frank, I had no idea what the circular economy or social enterprise meant until quite recently, much less that what we are doing falls under these terms. There seems to be a lot of talk in Vancouver, and buzz words like those and ones like greenest city, zero waste and renewable city are thrown around a lot. And I have to admit that we’ve started using these terms to identify ourselves alongside latest trends and developments. But often, that’s all it is: talk. When people ask me for advice on building a business with a circular model, or how to get started tackling problems such as waste and over-consumption, I tell them to just go for it. If you have an idea that you believe can create real impact and presents a fair business opportunity – just try it. Even if you fail, that is the only way you will get anywhere.”
The circular economy grows from an understanding that our current linear economic model is flawed and our resources finite. For many years, sustainability efforts have focused on the three R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, with a large emphasis on recycling, which often decreases the value of a material. But circular models focus on a more holistic approach, supporting business models based on principles such as:
- Recycling (traditional methods)
- Recycling = specific resourcing for new processes
For these models to gain a stronger presence in our city, it requires a systemic shift in how we think about doing business and how we consume.
A strong advocate of transparency in his business model, Felix hopes to inspire others to adopt his process and equipment for more resource recovery. In today’s day and age, he explains, patents don’t offer the same protection they used to, and he’s not worried about being plagiarized. He prefers to focus on establishing a great team with the necessary and complementary skillsets to have at his side. If someone could find a way to uncover value in waste materials such as used coffee cups or stir sticks, Felix hopes that ChopValue can serve as a catalyst for these business ideas to brew and inspire courage to move these projects forward. He is eager to collaborate with other entrepreneurs turning waste into resources.
Felix recently joined the Vancouver Economic Commission for a Circular Economy Workshop hosted at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Product Design Program’s Graduation Exhibition, and held at Dudoc. At the workshop, ten businesses convened with KPU professors and KPU students to work together and discuss the challenges and opportunities in moving towards more circular business models in Vancouver. If you are interested to learn more or attend the next event, you can read the Findings Report from the workshop here.