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Why ChopValue husband-and-wife team invested S$1 mil to start chopstick-upcycling biz

Evelyn Hew of ChopValue. (PHOTO: ChopValue)
Evelyn Hew of ChopValue. (PHOTO: ChopValue)

SINGAPORE – Profit is no longer the sole motivating factor behind starting a business for Evelyn Hew, 37, founder of ChopValue Singapore, an upcycling company that transforms used disposable chopsticks into new products for the home and office, such as cheese boards and office desks.

"It's more satisfying if you're helping the community and environment, inspiring others, and improving the future for our children," she said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Singapore.

The cheese boards usually go for S$28 while office desks retail at S$1,288.

Hew and her husband, Justin Lee, 41, the general manager of ChopValue Singapore, first became environmentally conscious after founding Smart City Solutions, a company that provides digital solutions for waste management in 2015. From there, they received first-hand information about the waste issues in Singapore.

"We both had a nagging feeling after seeing the waste problem and felt emotional about it," Hew said.

Lee added that they wanted to launch an initiative that the individual consumer can get involved in on a personal basis.

So, the couple reached out to the founder of ChopValue, a Canadian-based company that upcycles disposable chopsticks. Within a week, it was agreed that Hew and Lee would start ChopValue's first Asian franchise in Singapore, and the business was founded in April 2021.

They have since recycled about 4.4 million pairs of chopsticks.

ChopValue office desk made out of recycled chopsticks.
ChopValue office desk made out of recycled chopsticks.

Hew shares more of how ChopValue works:

Where do you obtain used chopsticks from and what happens to them?

We mostly get our chopsticks from the 120 restaurants who are working with us, and collect about 400kg to 600kg, or 66,000 to 99,000 pairs of chopsticks, weekly. Surprisingly, everyone has been very happy to be part of our recycling programme despite the pandemic – our rejection rate is only about 1 per cent or 2 per cent, and this usually occurs when we are unable to speak to the owners or decision makers. There are also some restaurants that operate very small establishments and do not have the space to store the chopsticks.

Although our partner restaurants do enjoy some discounts on our products, I believe most participate in our programme out of social consciousness. Furthermore, our team provides them the convenience of free collection and recycling bins for chopsticks. This reduces their waste and trips to waste collection points too because our team collects these chopsticks from the restaurants twice a week.

After collection, we then separate these used chopsticks according to their different materials and lengths and introduce an eco-friendly resin into the chopsticks. We then sanitise the chopsticks by baking them for several hours under high heat. We do this instead of using water to make the process more eco-friendly. After the entire process is over, our products end up being stronger than solid wood.

What is your current business model?

When we initially started, we thought the business was going to be very business-to-consumer focused. But after we received some media attention at the start of last year, large corporations started leading the way and contacting us for orders, and we naturally pivoted in that direction instead.

Right now, 80 per cent of our orders come from businesses and about 20 per cent come from consumers. Business is profitable for us, and because we shifted from a B2C to a B2B business, we have seen an incredible growth.

In the future, orders from businesses will probably still make up most of our sales because sustainable efforts are always led by the big corporations. It will probably take at least five years for our consumer sales to be on par with our corporate sales.

We personally feel that it's important for consumers to be able to touch and feel what their waste has been transformed into for them to feel connected to the whole waste problem and experience of upcycling. If not, it is a very disconnected experience and consumers do not know where their waste is going.

ChopValue cheeseboard made out of recycled chopsticks.
ChopValue cheeseboard made out of recycled chopsticks.

What are some risks you took to start ChopValue Singapore?

The biggest risk we took was a financial one – we invested about a million dollars into the business. But because we have other businesses which also require funds to operate, it would have been disastrous if ChopValue Singapore didn't work out.

Besides Smart City Solutions, we are also part of three other businesses in the food and beverage franchising sector.

Hence, another trade-off was also spending less time working on our other business – ChopValue Singapore takes up about 90 per cent of our time now.

What are some challenges you have faced and foresee yourself facing?

The toughest challenge the company faced was probably the initial transfer of knowledge from the team in Canada. They were supposed to fly to Singapore to train and guide us on the process of transforming chopsticks into new products. But because of the pandemic, there were some issues with the flights and they were not able to come.

We hence had to do our training virtually. This was challenging because the resolution of our cameras were not the best, and we were not able to get the hands-on experience required, for example, smelling and feeling the materials. We also did not know how to operate some basic tools, so the first couple of months was hard for us.

In the future, we will have to be more conscious of how we manage our carbon footprint. There will be forces in the market that will try to push our production to mega factories and having a single source of production and manufacturing. But if we have production plants overseas, the carbon emissions generated from our logistics will be very significant and will cancel out a lot of the good we are trying to do.

What are your future plans?

We are licensed to operate in both Singapore and Malaysia, so we plan to set up a franchise in Malaysia as well by the second quarter of 2023. Our team currently consists of 10 people, but we hope to expand it by three times, with some of our new team members based in Malaysia.

In Singapore, we hope to upcycle other waste products besides chopsticks in the future, and expand our reach to 500 restaurants for waste collection by the first quarter of the year.

We also hope to bring our recycling programme to hawker centres. This is where we will be able to really reach the masses and create an environmental impact.

With close to one million chopsticks discarded every day in Singapore, which is about 1,100 tonnes of waste every year, our products can help store about 500,000kg of carbon dioxide equivalent waste to fight climate change.

We hope to inspire others to look into our waste stream, and find a way to turn waste into resources.

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