She builds custom tables, wood products one rod at a time

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That pile of chopsticks in your kitchen drawer and the trash bags full of used chopsticks at one of Dorchester’s Asian restaurants would usually end up in the waste stream. But if Savin Hill’s Elaine Chow has anything to say about the situation, these utensils could become your next kitchen table.

Chow, her husband and their two children call Dorchester home, but these days she’s busier than ever at her micro-factory in Charlestown converting recycled chopsticks into all manner of wooden products – personalized coasters, wall hangings architectural, tables and furniture, among other elements.

With so many wands tossed in the trash, Chow said, she “felt” there was an opportunity in Boston for this kind of sustainable manufacturing.

“It’s something you use for 20 minutes and then throw away,” she said, but “they’ll probably live for 10 years or more like a table or a piece of furniture or whatever…Know in just six months that we could divert six tons of baguettes from landfills, that’s meaningful and amazing. To me, this is about Boston being at a turning point in sustainability. We need more ideas on this what to do with our garbage… We cannot continue to produce garbage and do nothing with it.

Chow’s business is based on the ChopValue franchise model in Vancouver, British Columbia, and its location is only the second in the United States – the other being Las Vegas. ChopValue was founded by Felix Böck, who saw the feasibility of creating a new material and a viable business model based 100% on a certain underutilized wood resource.

Chow had built a 20-year career with the nonprofit Year Up, which focuses on workforce development for urban youth. However, moving up to the executive levels took her away from the front lines of the operation and she wanted something more practical. Having learned about woodworking during the pandemic and having a passion for sustainability and recycling, she discovered ChopValue where those two interests collided.

“I took the plunge and quit my job at the end of September 2021,” she said, noting that the risk was real for her family. “I doubled down on my due diligence and by Thanksgiving I had bought the franchise. By fall I got all my financing. I thought I could be open by June but there’s no industrial space available I really wanted to be in Dorchester, but it didn’t work out.

After unsuccessfully surveying properties in the Freeport Street area, she found a location in Charlestown’s industrial area and a small-business-friendly landlord in Greg Berberian, who is well known for giving new ideas a chance in its properties.

Chow has engaged 100 Boston-area restaurants to recycle their wooden chopsticks and began collecting them last spring. While it has more than 3 million wands collected (about 15,000 pounds) and a six-month backlog, the search for space kept it from starting production for some time.

Now, however, they are operational.

“We went into production right after Labor Day,” she said. “It’s been over a month, and we’re battling labor shortages like everyone else, but it’s going well. We want it to be a place where all of us participate. »

One of the restaurants that immediately signed up was Pho Hoa Anh Hong Restaurant on Dorchester Avenue near Fields Corner.

“ChopValue makes it easy for restaurants to make sustainable choices,” said Tam Le, co-owner of Pho Hoa Anh Hong. “Not only do they recycle much of our waste at no cost, but they also provide locally made recycled products at a reasonable price.”

Other establishments that recycle chopsticks with Chow include China Pearl, Wagamama, Koreana, Shabu Zen, and Blue Ribbon Sushi.

Once delivered to the micro-factory, the baguettes are loaded by the hundreds into a sorting machine which divides them into portions that can be loaded into a square rack the size of a dinner plate. Once all the racks are loaded, the wands are heavily coated with a safe, water-based resin and left to cure overnight. The next day, they are separated into individual sticks and placed in a thermal steam press, which delivers 2,000 psi of pressure to create a one-inch block of what Chow calls a “raw tile.”

“Raw tiles are the building blocks of everything we produce,” she said.

Tiles can be planed, sanded and cut to size. To make tables or furniture, the slabs are assembled in pieces, or to make custom coasters, they are planed and cut to size. In addition to using recycled materials and preventing the use of virgin materials, the process reduces carbon emissions by reducing shipping and maintaining a tight circular economy.

Everything made in the factory is carbon negative and, she said, they can even ship products to the West Coast, and they will be at least carbon neutral.

Currently, the factory has room to triple production, add three shifts and a second heat press, and still not run out of space. There is, she says, ample room for expansion. Even excess sawdust, she added, is collected by a company in Gardner, Mass., and used for compost.

“Even though we’re a small company, I believe we can make a significant impact,” Chow said.

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Rozella J. Cook