An ancient utensil as art

EUGENE — Going out of business actually could be a sign of success for Eugene entrepreneur Bryan Parks.

That is because Parks, an American who lived in China for several years, began designing baskets and other household goods using recycled, sanitized bamboo chopsticks to try to keep the utensils out of the trash.

If his raw material becomes too scarce in China, then the problem that inspired his business has been solved through other means.

Parks' company is Kwytza (k-why-tza) Chopstick Art. Kwytza is the Chinese word for chopsticks.

The used chopsticks come from restaurants in China, and the finished products are sold to environmentally conscious consumers in North America.

In recent years, the Chinese government has tried to clamp down on the use of throwaway chopsticks through taxes and other restrictions.

The government hasn't released statistics on disposable chopstick consumption, but some estimate that 45 billion pairs are tossed out each year, according to China Daily.

"Someday there might not be a supply of chopsticks, and that's OK with us," Parks said. "I kind of feel like life is short, and I want to experience some other things."

It's not the typical business plan. But then Parks, 34, is far from the typical businessman.

Just ask the millionaires on "Shark Tank," the ABC entrepreneur reality show, who declined to invest in Parks' business after he gave a pitch on the show last year.

Parks said he wasn't surprised by their decision.

"I thought the type of business was not the type the investors would want to invest in," he said.

So Parks just stuck to what he's been doing for the past six years: a modest operation that enables him to support himself, and visit China a month or two each year to stay in touch with friends there, and practice the Chinese he learned as a university student in the southwestern town of Kunming.

Based in Eugene since 2006, Parks continues to brainstorm new products here. But the baskets themselves are made in China.

"Last year, I recycled over 800,000 chopsticks, and we're going for a million this year," he said.

Parks pays a man in China to pick up used chopsticks from about 10 restaurants in Kunming and sanitize them by boiling them for an hour. Black tea is added to stain some of the chopsticks a richer brown.

Parks also pays seven Chinese people — including Gu Jiang Ping, a close friend whom he met his first week in Kunming, her parents, and her aunts and uncles — to make the baskets by drilling small holes in the chopsticks and stringing them with monofilament, or fishing line.

Parks said he relies on his friend to suggest the wage.

"We try to pay them so they can make a good living," he said.

Parks doesn't disclose company financial information. He said his biggest startup expenses were trade show fees, paying his friend and her family to make the products, and shipping. He said he charged a lot of those expenses, racking up $60,000 in credit card debt, which he paid off about two years ago.

The finished baskets, which collapse and lay flat like a fan, are shipped to Parks in Eugene, and he checks them for quality before they're sent to a network of about 70 retailers in the United States and five in Canada.

Kwytza's large and medium baskets, and a flat soap dish, are available locally at Down to Earth stores. They retail for $24, $18 and $6, respectively.

Based on the number of reorders, the items are "definitely popular," Down to Earth buyer Carol Watkins said.

A sign near the display informs shoppers that the baskets are made from recycled chopsticks. "I've heard people say, 'Wow, that's cool,' " she said.

That wasn't the reaction Parks got when he began experimenting with chopstick art. Even his closest friends in China weren't very enthusiastic, Parks said.

When Parks returned to the United States, he gave a presentation on his chopstick art to his dad, who is a CPA, stepmom, brother and sister-in-law.

Everyone voiced encouragement, Parks said, except his dad, who finally offered: "The only thing I have to say is you might not want to tell people they're from recycled chopsticks."

Parks said his mom, who is the "get-a-job-with-a-401(k)-and health-insurance-type person" was "definitely freaked out."

Parks was born in Colorado, grew up in California, and earned a communications degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

After college, he planned trade shows for a medical company for two years. He got his employer's OK to put on a final trade show in Japan in late 2000, then quit his job for extended travel in Asia.

He stayed briefly in Japan, then "I literally took a slow boat to China, and that's where it all began," Parks said.

He studied at a university in Kunming in southwest China for a couple of years.

One day in 2002, while dining at a noodle shop with a friend, he wondered aloud how many disposable chopsticks China threw away in a year.

That planted a seed, and two years later Parks returned to China, after traveling in Central America, to see what he might do with used chopsticks.

He said he got his initial supply by "Dumpster diving," and soon his apartment balcony was covered with chopsticks — boiling in pots, drying in the sun.

At first, he made lamps.

"People liked them, but it wasn't making enough to pay expenses," Parks said.

Then he tried placemats, "which were a big hit," he said, "but they used a lot of chopsticks."

Finally in 2006, he came upon the design for his collapsible baskets, which have been by far his best seller.

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