Turning chopsticks into furniture

A team of UVic business students took second place in a national sustainable business competition with their pitch to collect and upcycle millions of discarded chopsticks in China into upscale eco-furniture. On Feb. 26, the Gustavson Greenshifters — third-year students Jennifer Sallows, Vinson Chen, Rebecca Staynor and A.J. Qin — won $15 000 as runners-up in the second annual Walmart Green Student Challenge. The Greenshifters beat all but one of the more than 150 student teams from across Canada.

Some of Canada’s top names in business from companies such as Google Canada, Ford Motor Company of Canada and S.C. Johnson Canada judged the proposals on originality, the ease of implementation, the potential business and environmental impact/feasibility and the team’s ability to get support through social media. The Greenshifters’ plan caught the judges’ eye for its originality and its global reach.

“No one else has created a recycling program in China to upcycle chopsticks into a product, so our idea was completely unique,” said Staynor in an email interview. “Our business plan would help to recycle some of the 45 billion chopsticks thrown away in China every year, which represents millions of trees.”

Some estimates say the number of disposable chopsticks produced in China each year is even higher — around 57 billion pairs annually, according to the New York Times.

The idea formed last September during UVic’s BCom orientation week in a competition called MIIISsion Impossible that gave assigned student teams four hours to come up with a sustainable and socially responsible business plan in the home country of the international student team member. The Greenshifters earned first place at MIIISsion Impossible, which is named after the central themes within the Gustavon School of Business: Innovative, Integrative, International and Sustainable/socially responsible.

“Any student that can come in as a new student and look at waste as a resource is very impressive,” said Richard Tuck, a PhD student who helped judge MIIISsion Impossible, “especially when they see that waste can be a resource for something that is worth a lot of money. Any student that can see that is way ahead of the curve.”

The Greenshifters took their idea from September and developed it for the Walmart Green Student Challenge, which required that one-page business plans be submitted on Dec. 14 and then for the top 20 finalists to send in an eight-page proposal by Jan. 25. The top five teams were sent to Toronto, where they presented their proposals to the panel of judges.

“The idea that the Greenshifters had was a big, bold, global idea for sustainability,” said Vivien Corwin, director of undergraduate programs at Gustavson. “I think that’s also quite fabulous — to have an opportunity to present something so innovative to a group of judges with such incredible reach and power.”

The Greenshifters proposed that, with a $100 000 initial investment and partnerships with manufacturing and sales companies, receptacles for chopsticks in high-traffic areas in China could be emptied and brought to a facility by company cyclists, where the chopsticks would be compressed and sterilized at high temperatures and then bonded with resin additives to make bamboo oriented strand board.

“I think it’s the idea that we’re making a product without adding to the environmental harm,” said Sallows. “Instead of the chopsticks being a one-time-use item and going straight into the landfill and having a really short lifecycle with a lot of negative effects, we’re kind of removing that, and it’s being redirected. Not only are we not cutting down new trees to make our furniture, we’re not adding to the landfill waste.”

The strand board could be used to build high-end furniture, or as construction supplies for cabinets or flooring. As luxury furniture, strand board offers an alternative for ecologically-minded consumers; this adds to its market value.

While the Walmart Green Student Challenge did not focus on socially responsible aspects of the business proposals, it was important to the team for the plan to include aspects of social sustainability.

“Our hope is that we’d be hiring marginalized citizens who maybe were working in factories for really terrible wages and couldn’t support their families. We’d offer them a decent wage doing unskilled labour that they wouldn’t need a lot of training for,” said Sallows, who proposes that some of these workers could collect the recycled chopsticks and deliver them to a processing plant by bike.

The Greenshifters do not plan on immediately pursuing this business plan, but hope to do so in the future. In the meantime, the team split the $15 000 prize and plans on using the money to fund exchange trips abroad in the coming academic years.

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