ChopValue Singapore transforms waste into stylish lifestyle products through the creative use of the humble chopstick
It is estimated that Singapore alone consumes about one million chopsticks daily, contributing to the 7.39 million tonnes of waste collected in 2022 alone. Rather than chuck these disposable utensils into a landfill or incinerator, ChopValue Singapore has discovered the true value of recycled chopsticks as Scandi chic upcycled furniture.
ChopValue, established in 2016 by Canadian entrepreneur Felix Böck, reimagines urban waste by repurposing discarded chopsticks into stylish, eco-friendly products.
The company adheres to circular economy principles, recycling over 100 million disposable chopsticks and saving six million carbon emissions, aligning with its commitment to minimising waste and reducing environmental impact.
Currently, it operates close to 10 (and counting) microfactories in Canada and the US, with outposts in Mexico, Liverpool, Bali and Singapore — the first microfactory outside of North America managed by husband-wife duo Justin Lee and Evelyn Hew. The couple owns SmartCity Solutions, an SME that provides smart digital solutions which enhance sustainability and productivity in the waste management and built environment sectors. Franchising ChopValue Singapore in 2021 was the next step in their goal to help the nation reach net zero emissions.
“Eve(lyn) saw a ChopValue video circulating. At first glance, it seemed whimsical, a bit ridiculous and probably commercially unfeasible. So, we contacted Felix, the founder, to discover more. Within two weeks, we knew all we needed and were committed to bringing ChopValue into Singapore and Malaysia. We bootstrapped, sold off the stuff we didn’t need, and launched in December 2021,” says Lee.
The environmental impact of repurposing single-use chopsticks is not lost on him as he looks to showcase the value of ChopValues’ ambition of redefining waste-to-resource with its local microfactory. Lee asks: “Did you know that as a nation, we throw away over 1 million disposable chopsticks daily? If we can convert all this waste into resources, we can build 60,000 durable, functional, aesthetically pleasing desks.”
He continues: “ChopValue is a simple, unpretentious representation of the circular economy. It’s so easy to relate. Used chopsticks are saved and converted into new products for us to use again. So, the vision is also straightforward. We want to reach a point where no single used chopstick in Singapore or Malaysia is landfilled or incinerated. We want to store or convert all that carbon into beautiful, functional products and show that waste can be converted into a new resource. We want to demonstrate recycling in a hyper-local concept, including manpower. Everything is done with the smallest footprint possible. Hopefully, we can inspire others to look at other wastes too.”
During a tour of their upcycling facility in Loyang, Lee explains the entire end-to-end process of how the chopsticks are given new life. He adds: “The first step is securing the harvest. So, we approach restaurants and F&B operators to ‘evangelise’. Notable partners include Frasers Property malls, Lau Pa Sat and hawker centres in Yuhua. We collect them with a carefully calculated route to ensure the lowest emissions possible. Often, we get about two tonnes of chopsticks a month, some of which are mailed from residences or offices.”
They are unpacked and neatly placed into slots in a sorting machine, which will shake off unwanted waste like prawn shells. They are then soaked in a water-based resin and placed in a heated dryer for sanitation. “We don’t wash the chopsticks beforehand because water conservation is part of our brand ethos,” says Lee.
The resin, which acts as a binder, activates when pressure and high heat of 170 degrees Celsius are applied to the wooden tiles in the pressing machine. No chemicals are used in the process, which means all their products are non-toxic and VOC (volatile organic compounds)-free, which is a win-win for sustainability and the environment.
Past this point, everything else is just traditional woodworking using saws and sanders, all done by hand. “We’re not trying to be traditional, but we want to manage our footprint, our energy consumption. We do more harm than good because carbon is being stored in all these machines. The prime objective of this microfactory concept is to manufacture at scale with minimal carbon footprint,” he continues.
Using efficient woodworking handcrafting methods, this facility can produce over 10 tonnes of material monthly, equivalent to 400 desks. And in case you’re wondering about the durability of these tables, Lee claims that ChopValue’s Natural MicroFibre Performance Material is stronger than oak and harder than maple. “Our material outperforms solid wood,” he adds.
ChopValue Singapore has recycled over 12 million chopsticks, saving over 500,000 kg of CO2 emissions. It is also well on its way to achieving the Singapore Green Building Products (SGBP) certification, which is reserved for the best sustainable practices in the nation.
Their impressive clientele includes Marina Bay Sands (which used over a million chopsticks for cubed menu displays with embedded QR codes), The Ascott Limited’s Robertson House (which utilised close to 600,000 chopsticks to design amenities trays for each of the guest rooms) and The Work Boulevard (which used 475,000 chopsticks to build all its office furniture and feature wall).
ChopValue’s initiatives offer a win-win solution for businesses, enabling them to thrive economically while prioritising environmental consciousness. By implementing a circular economy approach, which involves the extraction of wasted resources through urban harvesting, these resources are reintroduced back into the economy — promoting sustainability and ensuring that Singapore maximises the reuse of its finite resources in diverse and meaningful ways.
In this interview with Options, Lee and Hew share their journey as founders of Singapore’s leading innovator of circular materials.
Why did you want to start ChopValue Singapore?
Hew: Born and raised in Malaysia, I came to Singapore at 18. To be honest, I never heard the words “sustainability” or “circular economy” back then. Climate change was not at the top of our minds. When we had our first child in 2013, things gradually changed. We started envisioning her future and realised that the environment would play a big part in her quality of life. We already had various small businesses that we were busy with, but there was this feeling that we could contribute more and do something more exciting. The logic here is we can make a living in many ways; why not find something that can also positively impact us?
Singapore is home. Naturally, we want the positive impact to start here. There are also many coincidental factors as well. Like politically, the green plan was also announced in 2021, and our government has shown that the path forward is eco-friendly. Knowing how our system works, we can make it happen if we declare it.
Was it hard to set up?
Lee: The pandemic did two things: One good, one bad. Because activity was low, it allowed us to pause and reflect on what we were doing in our lives, and because of that, we discovered ChopValue. But it also presented challenges like shipping delays for initial equipment, and we had to resort to remote training, where we set up the factory via Google Meet! The Vancouver team was at the boarding gates, ready to fly to Singapore, but due to confusion with VTLs, they were not allowed to come here then.
The set-up was indeed challenging. Firstly, we have zero woodworking background. So we had to gather all that experience and know-how within a month. Next, Singapore doesn’t have a woodworking base focused on solid wood; we are more used to working with plywood or panels, so many essential tools and supplies must be sourced overseas. There was a lot of improvising. Even the core machinery was delayed due to the pandemic. However, we powered through with incredible support from our HQ and were in full swing by February 2022.
Is it expensive to run an upcycling company?
Lee: Definitely. In a traditional manufacturing company, you would first situate yourself in a country with lower manufacturing costs like rentals and labour. You could leverage power-hungry machinery to keep costs down. Your raw materials come in containers or on the back of trucks. But because of our sustainability ethos, we can’t do that. So we do an “urban harvest” and collect all our raw materials across Singapore.
We have to watch our carbon footprint every step of the way to make sure we are making a positive impact. So everything is handcrafted. We have to operate hyperlocal within Singapore to save on logistics emissions. So, if we want to serve the KL market, we won’t be supplying from Singapore, but we will open a microfactory in KL instead. Upcycling at scale will always be more expensive than traditional manufacturing. But traditional manufacturing comes with another cost you don’t see on financial statements: the cost to the environment.
What are your business goals?
Hew: Immediately, we hope to increase our local manufacturing capacity. Currently, the demand is slightly above what our resources can produce. Once we build more capacity, we would love to open microfactories in Kuala Lumpur and address Malaysian chopsticks. We have a goal: To have every professional linked to built environments know our story.
Like most manufacturing companies, our revenue stems from the sales of our products. Our products are not just coasters, phones, or tables. Our product is this unique material that is stronger than oak and harder than maple. It’s a versatile building material. So we work with designers, architects, space owners and more to fit out spaces with desks, counters, wall decor, ceiling panels and many other types of furniture. You can even find our benches in some foyers. B2B is still the dominant demand, but we often do custom home furniture, like dining tables and kitchen islands.
It must be very hectic at your Microfactory.
Lee: With our orders, we often run into overtime. Keeping our team busy is not the concern; it’s more about helping them understand their work’s purpose and how they contribute to the environment.
Your products are beautiful. What else do you have in the pipeline?
Lee: We are working with Temasek Polytechnic’s School of Design on a series of products, and we are still deliberating on the general direction. But we must credit designers and the interior architects we work with for much of our produce. Our clients also always come up with fantastic ideas, and we help manifest those with chopsticks.
Why stop at chopsticks? What else are you looking at upcycling?
Lee: ChopValue has already begun research into other waste materials. But most importantly, whatever we come up with next, it can replace the traditional, unsustainable resource. It has to be better.