August 24, 2006 3:17 AM   Subscribe

Give me some ideas about what can be done with those disposable chopsticks at Chinese restaurants once they've been used (I live in China, so there's lots of 'em).

China, believe it or not, actually has a pretty effective recycling apparattus - since nobody recycles, there are people who dig through the trash at about 3 in the morning, pull out anything they can sell, and leave the rest for the garbage shovelers and street sweepers who come out at about 5-6 in the morning. The garbage shovelers then sort by hand what's left. Sure ain't pretty work, but it's effective, at least where I live.

Anyway, one type of garbage I almost never see pulled and recycled is the disposable bamboo chopsticks/kebab sticks (coal grills and food on sticks are a stable of the street food market). I remember reading once about a guy who collects them and makes furniture out of them, and I guess now that I'm managing to store away a little capital and thinking about starting my own business, I'm wondering if there's a way to recycle these locally and turn them into something resalable. Any ideas/ballpark costs? The more ape-able and small-scale this thing is, the better, because it would get rid of a major pet peeve to my tree-hugging conscience (and probably open up consulting opportunities in the future :D ).
posted by saysthis to Science & Nature (17 answers total)
I'm sure there are lots of things you could construct from sticks. Having food on them - and their having been in random people's mouths - would raise some sanitation questions. Are you going to wash them?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:46 AM on August 24, 2006

Here's what one company is doing with recycled disposable chopsticks. Might give you some ideas.
posted by Orb at 5:05 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]

Make art.
posted by extrabox at 5:19 AM on August 24, 2006

Depending on your startup capital, you could use them to make paper via wood pulp. I believe the right process would also sterilize the wood/pulp. It'd be recycled paper from the start, but probably of the quality of non-recycled paper given which phase the recycling took place. There's probably a high-end niche market for it so you could keep the production down, which I imagine it'll have to be given the size of the things.
posted by jwells at 6:01 AM on August 24, 2006

Perhaps build a temple

(admittedly, that's not made of chopsticks, but it is made of waste)
posted by adamrice at 6:53 AM on August 24, 2006

I saw something useful just this week, but unfortunately, I can't find the link to it. It was a box that held the chopsticks narrow end up. It was used to hold your cutlery, like a regular knife block, except the pressure between the chopsticks held the knives in. Because there weren't specific holes for each knife, it would hold as many knives as you could fit and allow you to expand your set as it grew.
posted by kookywon at 7:59 AM on August 24, 2006

One would think that you could make a form that would hold the sticks in a certain shape, then the application of some sort of bonding agent to secure them together would result in planks of "wood" for use. Of course this may be more expensive than regular production of building material, so some selling gimmick will need to be applied.
posted by edgeways at 8:08 AM on August 24, 2006

I heard that restaurants in China which don't have the reusable plastic chopsticks feature a recycle box where the used disposables are tossed. Just a rumour, then?

Your lumping "disposable bamboo chopsticks/kebab sticks" together confuses me. The 'use-once-and-discard' chopsticks I'm familiar with are always a soft wood, like pine, which the user breaks apart; whereas skewers are always bamboo, as you say. The bamboo chopsticks I know are too nice to discard; useful for many years (although some apparently fear them for reasons of hygene now, hence their replacement with the annoyingly slippery plastic chopsticks).

posted by Rash at 9:22 AM on August 24, 2006

kookywon: the instructions for making a knife block out of bamboo skewers and an old soda bottle were featured in Readymade #23, unfortunately not up on the web.
posted by Sara Anne at 9:40 AM on August 24, 2006

I've seen those knife blocks. I can't imagine you need to do much more than fill a two-liter bottle fairly densely with chopsticks, enough so that blades can sink through easily but handles will be stopped. Decorate and you're done.
posted by andifsohow at 11:04 AM on August 24, 2006

Turning it into pulp for paper is a darn good idea.

What about turning them into chipped & lacquered plywood or chipboard/particle board?
posted by porpoise at 11:06 AM on August 24, 2006

Paint them and turn them into hair accessories.
posted by catseatcheese at 12:01 PM on August 24, 2006

you can sharpen the narrow end with a pencil sharpener, add a little fimo clay decoration on the top, and then give it a good fine sandpapering and make them into knitting needles. it also helps if you rub some wax paper on them, too, to fill in any yarn-catching cracks.
posted by kerning at 12:11 PM on August 24, 2006

This fruit bowl looks easy (12 chopsticks + rubber band). Not super practical, and doesn't use up a lot of chopsticks, but it's clever and pretty.

here's a bowl that apparently can fold flat when not in use, but there are no instructions given.

I found several mentions of birdhouses made from chopsticks, but no images nor instructions. Still, a cool idea, and I bet people would buy it.

Whatever you end up making, you might consider test-selling on Etsy. A lot of buyers are very interested in buying art and ...stuff made from recycled materials, and selling a few bowls, birdhouses, or whatnot might give you a good idea of what items people are most interested in buying. It could also help you figure out how to price these items.
posted by jessicapierce at 12:39 PM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: @Rash - I lump them together because I know absolutely nothing about what they're made of. From what I can tell the really cheapy places/sidewalk wranglers use the soft wood ones, more upscale places use bamboo or plastic (which given how many trees you have to slice up every year to make the things, despite how slippery they are, is a good thing, I think), a very rare few use metal (mostly high-end Korean places). It really varies. The reason people don't recycle the bamboo skewers is sanitation (there've been scandals in the newspaper about places that do, yeugh). Also, some restaurants have the recycling boxes, but most I've seen don't (they might keep them in the back, this is still a half-assed commitment and I'm just brainstorming, so I haven't asked around). The simple fact of the matter is that if you look in your average restaurant's trash, there are tons of the little things. Considering hygeine, there's really just no good incentive not to throw them away.

@Kirth Gerson - Well, I'm thinking more along the lines of grind them up and make something that involves high temperatures and a chemical bath with them. As cheap as labor is here, and as big as the growing market for the kind of luxury furniture like they make at that company Orb linked to (Kuaizi, dammit) is here, I'm not sure how much I fancy the idea of having to ensure their sanitation and running a construction shop (I'm hardly any kind of manager and I don't have much startup capital at all). I'm thinking more along the lines of a reclamation service that will buy them from trash collectors/restaurant owners and sell them to people who can use them as raw materials for whatever it is they make. I really doubt sanitation would be much of an issue, although environmentally, the less processing they have to go through the better. Finding good ideas and convincing the owners of other shops to try making things might be a good idea though...

@edgeways - particle board? Does having them covered affect the integrity of the wood? There's also some kind of composite wood with a chemical abbreviation for its name that they say can bear more pressure than cement. Don't know if that would work. I'll ask around.

@jwells - Good idea, I'll try to get some more info on paper-making too.

@everybody else - Thanks a ton for the suggestions. This is just what I needed to get my brain working on some ideas. I guess most of all I need to figure out where all these chopsticks are going, if they're recycled, what it would cost to recycle them, all that good stuff. Lots of research ahead of me. So thanks again!
posted by saysthis at 1:50 PM on August 24, 2006

Response by poster: oops. from the @edgeways "having them covered" should be "having them covered in food and spit".
posted by saysthis at 2:05 PM on August 24, 2006

I've made knitting needles from chopsticks, just as kerning describes -- but from the good bamboo kind, which I now understand is NOT the type saythis is inquiring about. Instead, this question concerns what the Japanese call waribashi, which are an inexplicable waste of wood.
posted by Rash at 5:19 PM on August 24, 2006

« Older Is this enough health coverage? is it even really...   |   80's babble Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.