As event organisers, Plan A is always thinking of how this activity – and by extension, all activities – impacts the world and the species that surround us. Whether the lighting, the food or the goodies, we strive to source the most sustainable products and implement the 5Rs of a lifecycle: refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, rot. In this endeavour, drinks are a particularly hard one to get. They require ingredients from the far reaches of the planet, cups, and in some instances, straws.
We have had the pleasure to speak with Hannah Cheney, co-founder of HALM, a plastic-fighting company replacing disposable straws with glass ones. We wanted to know more about how a simple product can contribute so much to the balance, and what the plan is to definitively get rid of them.
Can you tell us a little more about the company you co-founded, HALM, which makes glass straws to help fight the current plastic plague?
Hannah Cheney: 3-6 billion single-use plastic straws are estimated to flood our environment worldwide, every day. HALM provides a solution to both private and business customers, offering the most sustainable, hygienic and taste-neutral alternative to plastic straws.
Making sustainable choices isn’t always easy. How did you decide on the design and material of the straws?
We started HALM by looking into the available alternatives to disposable plastic straws but weren’t impressed by what we found. Compared to other available alternatives, glass straws prove to be the best solution. While metal straws are durable and reusable, they tend to have sharp edges and leave a metallic taste in the mouth. Bamboo straws are difficult to keep clean due to their porous nature, thus hygiene after multiple uses (especially in hot climates) poses a problem. Paper changes the taste and is not reusable. Some companies claim to offer a more sustainable straw in the form of biodegradable plastics.
While surely a better option, it is still imperfect: biodegradable plastics require ideal conditions in order to degrade effectively, and in the end, producing them requires a great deal of natural resources. Glass straws from HALM are the only option that meets all demands: innovation, quality, 100% flavour and style. HALM glass is a fully recyclable material. Glass is also the most hygienic and easy to clean in the dishwasher or with warm water. Best of all, glass is transparent so you can easily identify the level of cleanliness. Our glass straws are not only sustainable, but they also ensure the best drinking experience with a pure taste and smooth mouth-feel.
What started you out on the path to sustainability? Did you move towards it naturally or was it a particular event that made you evolve?
During a holiday in Thailand in 2015, we organised a beach clean-up to help the local community, and in 2 hours were able to fill approximately 25 150L plastic waste bags. The results were alarming as every second item collected was a plastic straw.
This prompted us to look deeply into the impact of single-use plastic. Once we realised how such small, everyday items have such a devastating effect on our environment and particularly our oceans, it was clear that our path moving forward was to be part of a change that would be able to provide a solution for these issues. We then set out on our mission to create a company with a zero plastic impact and HALM was born.
What is the biggest challenge and the biggest reward in your career as an entrepreneur for good?
Our founding principle was to solve a problem by providing a solution on a mass scale. This meant it was vital to not create new problems in a new market. Our supply chain is 100% plastic-free, produced with renewable energy and under fair working conditions in Germany. This has been both the biggest challenge and the biggest reward. It’s the biggest challenge because standard business is done based on profit, but for us, every decision we make has to adhere to our values and principals, which means we have had to create a new style of doing business with our partners. Sometimes we have to compromise on making profits by paying higher prices for renewable, plastic-free materials in order to ensure that our product and operation remains sustainable and fair.
The biggest reward is that with these principles we have been able to create a movement that has had a direct impact on consumer behaviour and even a political impact. Before we started, there was no EU law to ban plastic straws, but now there is! In less than 2 years, we have established ourselves as the market leaders and have saved over 1 billion plastic straws from being used and thrown away. That is a huge achievement!
Your product faces both businesses and customers. This gives you a particular outlook on the question “who should do more, business, individuals or governments”? What is your take on this question?
We are catching a fundamental moment in human history, the moment of choice! There is a growing desire for and necessity toward environmentally friendly products and products that operate in a circular economy. Consumers are choosing to ask the question “Do I need to use this environmentally unfriendly solution?” That question wasn’t being asked 20-30yrs ago, it is now!
Businesses and governments have a responsibility to listen to the demands of the people and to respond to the alarming state that our world is in and provide fast solutions at every level. However, consumer behaviour is the biggest driver for those issues and it is vital that we ALL make a change. Whether you are young, old, in business or in politics, change is required on all levels. We are all living in this world together and need to preserve it for now and for our future generations in every way we can. In the case of drinking straws, it’s an easy answer to a very simple question. “I have a 10-minute drinking experience, do I need to use a plastic straw or can I shift to something more attractive and reduce my environmental footprint at the same time?”
Why did you choose to base your company in Berlin? Are there specific advantages to doing sustainability in Berlin?
I’ve personally been living in Berlin for 12 years now and my partner is originally from Berlin. We have seen Berlin change from its ‘Poor but sexy’ status to one of the most diverse and fast-moving capital cities in western Europe, with a plethora of business startups and the knowledge and networks that come along with it. I can definitely say that the start-up world we have in Berlin is a huge motivator for creating and driving action and we feel supported by like-minded people and businesses, like yourselves at Plan A. The connections we’ve made have been vital for both our personal and business success. Whilst Berlin is at the forefront of many sustainable ideas and direct exposure to those ideas can be inspiring, location is not a factor that should stop anyone from creating a sustainable business. With today’s technology, knowledge and communication networks, sustainable business can be done from any corner of the earth.
Who are the most enthusiastic customers? Do you think even without legislation banning single-use, we could reach a world without plastic straws?
Over 2000 hospitality businesses are already using HALM successfully, such as The Ritz Bar in Paris, the Mercure Hotel in Berlin and Steigenberger Hotels throughout Germany – just to name a few. Whether a small café, a juice bar or upscale establishments, restaurants and hotels – HALM has made a name for itself as an ecological and stylish drinking straw across the hospitality industry.
Without legislation banning single-use plastic, I don’t believe we could reach a world without plastic straws, because at the end of the day, there are still many people who really don’t care about our environment or running their business sustainably. For those people and businesses, there has to be restrictions. One of the great things that come with new laws like the ban on single-use plastics is a huge increase in awareness and behaviour changes.
You work with several organisations that fight against plastic pollution in our oceans. How does this collaboration work and how can business and NGOs work together to address problems arising in the Anthropocene era?
HALM supports projects that deal with waste clean-up, education about plastic waste, alternative solutions, as well as research and development in the industry. We have recently started a project where we donate 5 euros for every package sold of our ‘Special Engraved Editions’ to selected NGO’s like OceanCare and Earth Day. Donations are provided directly to selected organisations.
At HALM, we are big advocates for sustainability and a circular economy. Our outreach and support of other projects are just as important as our product, as we aim to demystify sustainability and generate a positive change in human behaviour. Businesses and NGOs can work closely together by sharing knowledge and information to amplify the effects made on both sides.
What would you say to aspiring green entrepreneurs who haven’t jumped in yet?
Our wish for the future is that we stop treating the planet as we are currently doing and create products that are not inherently flawed in design from the beginning. If you have seen a problem that needs solving, find a better solution and find materials that operate in a circular economy. Aim for a zero-waste impact and don’t compromise our environment for profits.
If you think ‘I am just one person, what can I do that will make an impact on such an urgent matter?’ The answer is, Everything! Just like us, two individuals who made a big change already, are now a strong team, forging the way for others! We are the generation that WILL and CAN make the change, don’t wait, there is no more time!
Hannah Cheney is Cofounder and CEO of HALM. She love travelling, new experiences and getting involved in projects that inspire positive change in human behaviour. Based in Berlin, she has seen the rise of social and environmental innovation in an alternative economy and knew it was time to create a better solution for our future generations.