For Felix Böck, the conversation around recycling starts at the dinner table.
That’s exactly where he first found the inspiration to found ChopValue, a product engineering and design firm that creates furniture from recycled bamboo chopsticks. And that’s how his 100 percent recycled products made it from his dinner table — and hundreds of dining tables around Vancouver, Canada — to a whole new generation of tables, countertops, and other home décor conversation pieces.
Böck’s lightbulb moment came in the summer of 2016.
“My girlfriend and I were sitting at sushi dinner,” Böck recalls. A carpenter and wood engineer by trade, he had been working on a project with the city of Vancouver, tasked with finding solutions for recycled wood waste from the housing market. “I was talking about how frustrated I am that no one wants to use recycled wood, and that so much is ending up in the landfill.”
His girlfriend, ChopValue co-founder Thalia Otamendi, offered a direct yet simple response. She pointed at the chopsticks on their table and said, “Maybe you should start with that.”
Böck and Otamendi initially laughed it off, but as they gave the idea more thought, they started to see its merits. As a PhD candidate studying structural bamboo products, Böck realized a project involving recycled bamboo chopsticks didn’t seem so far-fetched. And in the coastal seaport of Vancouver, where sushi and other Asian restaurants abound — and where over one hundred thousand chopsticks are discarded every day — his project would be supported by a near-endless supply of material.
What began as a dead-end conundrum became, for Böck, a series of natural decisions. He and his team would craft a line of sustainably-built furniture and home décor products, made from a recycled chopstick composite material, using a resin he had studied extensively during his work with BASF.
Because he had been collaborating with BASF on resin systems since 2011, Böck says, “I knew right away that I had a specific water-based resin in mind.” That resin was BASF’s Acrodur® 950L.
Making the natural (and sustainable) choice
With only two core components — recycled bamboo chopsticks and the Acrodur resin — ChopValue’s composite material seems deceptively simple. Böck may have chosen them both in a heartbeat, but his reasoning was based on years of study and experience as a wood engineer.
For starters, he already knew bamboo as one of the fastest-growing wood grasses on the planet. Because it grows several feet tall in different locations around the globe, bamboo can be harvested sustainably with minimal food chain competition. Böck also recognized how bamboo might be used as a resource for highly densified materials.
Bamboo chopsticks share many of the high-performing traits of virgin bamboo, with one added perk: in cities like Vancouver, where bamboo doesn’t grow naturally but Asian restaurants thrive, discarded chopsticks pile up in abundance. To collect on that resource, ChopValue offers restaurants the opportunity to recycle their chopsticks with the firm, touting incentives like reduced waste disposal costs and the chance to present a more environmentally-friendly image to their patrons.
Böck had the same eco-conscious and sustainable thought process at the forefront of his vision for ChopValue. Because the resin has been proven to work well with natural fibers like bamboo, both virgin and recycled — and particularly because of its low emissions profile — Acrodur 950L matched many of his development goals.
“I was a fan of the resin system because of its safety, and how simple it is to use,” he says of the acrylic, formaldehyde-free thermoset binder. In addition to its practical traits, “I wanted to make sure that if I have the chance to create a very high value-added product, in the high-end market, that I also use a high-end resin for it.”
Jeremy Funk, Technical Service Manager for Construction Solutions at BASF, says Acrodur lends itself well to ChopValue’s environmentally friendly message.
“The beauty of Acrodur is that it contains no formaldehyde, and yet has a very strong crosslinking,” Funk explains. Compared to more traditional resins, like polyester or epoxy resins, Acrodur’s water-based system allows for significantly reduced levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). As a result, the resin creates a very low level of emissions and only emits water as a byproduct of curing.
If a manufacturer attempted to use more generic resins for a natural fiber application, Funk says the product’s performance would suffer. One would need to apply the resin more generously to make up for the lag in performance, which means a heavier finished composite made with less sustainable material.
Acrodur allows for a more economical use of resin.
“Acrodur reacts to the backbone of the fiber itself,” says Funk. Because of its chemical makeup, manufacturers can use the resin to create stronger composites overall while using lower levels of binder in the finished composite, which in turn helps companies keep their sustainable and eco-friendly promises at every step of the process.
By Funk’s estimation, finished Acrodur composites can include up to about 75 percent natural content by weight, whereas traditional composites only have about 50 percent natural content by weight.
“I’ve been in this industry for about twenty-one years or so,” Funk adds, “and I’ve not seen a product like Acrodur until I came to BASF. I’ve been very impressed with the material’s complexities and what it can do.”
Henning Karbstein, Manager of New Business Development and Idea Management at BASF, says Acrodur’s reputation often precedes itself in cases like these.
“[Acrodur] has been used in building materials, in furniture applications, and automotive applications already, and it’s well-known in the industry as a great fiber bonding choice for natural fibers,” says Karbstein. “It’s a sustainable choice for its emission characteristics. The processing parameters are very well understood, and the processing itself is easy to implement. The handling of the moldable fiber and resin prepregs is straightforward and their shelf life is long. Plus, the molding process for both options — thermoset or thermoplastic — fits the expectations of the industry. This has been a great additional value for our customers.”
Getting ChopValue hot off the presses
Using Acrodur 950L and the recycled bamboo chopsticks, the ChopValue team develops materials using a precise combination of heat and pressure. Because of the chopsticks’ smooth, consistent shape, they mesh well together to form a workable material with uniform density.
Once the chopsticks have been sorted by type, coated in Acrodur, cured, and conditioned, the ChopValue team lays the chopsticks into a hydraulic heat and pressure system, which compresses the chopsticks into a high-density block.
“A hot process creates a very efficient and strong bond to the natural fibers,” Karbstein explains. As a result, manufacturers can use a minimal amount of binder on a larger amount of fiber in order to form a very strong composite material.
To manufacturers working with Acrodur, Funk offers a word of advice: the resin requires a precise calculation of the curing temperatures and times to ensure everything works as it should.
When they give the resin the right amount of heat and time to properly cure, Funk says, “It will perform every time.” That means the material will be able to withstand water and exterior environments with ease.
BASF typically works alongside manufacturers to supply technical data and specifications, make on-site visits, and offer recommendations to reach the ideal outcome.
Having worked with Böck in the past, and considering his history as a consultant for BASF, Karbstein says ChopValue’s initial development process was relatively free of hiccups.
“We have all the chemical knowledge, but Felix is probably the best expert in the world for bamboo fibers acting with the Acrodur resin,” Karbstein says.
How recycled fiber becomes part of the furniture
Since its inception last year, ChopValue has used the recycled chopstick material to create tile patterns for walls, countertops, and tables; standalone products like shelves, side tables, and coasters; as well as balconies and other custom projects.
Beyond an attractive line of furniture, Böck takes care to curate the narrative he conveys to his customers. He believes businesses can do the same, in any material sector, by delivering products and services that impact consumers on multiple levels.
“You can have an environmental impact with your business, but we also have a social and community impact,” he says. “We educate people on what we do with their garbage, and we make sure they understand that first, this is not waste. This is a resource.”
What’s next for Böck and ChopValue?
“We definitely want to move towards sustainable building materials, where we offer acoustic tiling to wall coverings to, five years down the road, even paneling and flooring,” he says. He believes that as consumers become more aware of the products they buy, and where the materials are sourced, the current trend of eco-friendly purchasing will eventually become the norm. “I see it as a positive development as we become more conscious of what we buy, and how we design.”
Since their collaboration with BASF, ChopValue has expanded to offer a wider range of novel materials. They recently finished renovating an entire restaurant in Vancouver. To complete the renovation, Böck estimates they used over four hundred thousand bamboo chopsticks. The project involved a sixty-foot-long feature wall spanning the length of the restaurant, twenty-five dining tables, a large family table, a bar, and flooring in the entryway.
Every one of ChopValue’s projects, tiles, and furniture pieces have involved the use of an Acrodur resin. The firm has recycled over 3 million chopsticks to date.
So, how many chopsticks made the full-circle journey from restaurants around Vancouver to one newly built, fully-recycled dinner table — or ChopValue tabletop, to be more precise? Böck places the number at around two thousand.
For Vancouver locals, that’s a lot of sushi dinners.