The last straw

Halm and Wisefood gear up for the fight against plastic straws

Glashalm
Not the ones to nibble on. Source: AP

Colorful, seemingly harmless, plastic drinking straws are front-and-center in the Europe-wide battle to reduce plastic waste and find environmentally friendly alternatives to commonly used items. In late May, the European Commission proposed a ban on 10 single-use plastic objects, including coffee stirrers, bags, cotton swabs and straws, to reduce marine litter.

Opposition to plastic items grew out of concern that too much of the non-biodegradable stuff is already floating in oceans, becoming tangled in coral reefs or making animals who ingest the items sick. No target was easier to find than the straw. Though there are some exceptions, straws are a mostly superfluous item. Official European Union estimates suggest that every year more than 36 billion plastic straws are used and tossed in the trash. That comes out to 71 straws per year for every citizen in the bloc.

That’s where Berlin-based Halm, and Wisefood, based in Langenbernsdorf, south of Leipzig, come in. These two German startups are trying to replace plastic straws with sustainable ones in similar, yet entirely unique, ways: Halm makes them out of glass, whereas Wisefood makes them from apples. Both companies have the same simple goal: guilt-free sipping.

Halm’s glass goodies

The self-financed founders of Halm, Hannah Cheney and Sebastian Müller, launched their business in 2016. In just two years, more than 250 restaurants, cafes and hotels have begun using their glass straws.

The straws are made from light-weight glass from German manufacturer Schott. A set of four costs just under €20 and includes a special cleaning brush. Each straw can be used up to 1,000 times, the founders say.

“In the beginning, it was arduous convincing restaurateurs to switch to glass straws,” Mr. Müller explained. But the 36-year-old took a pragmatic approach: He told them they would have to do it anyway once the EU law is passed, so they might as well start now.

German grocery stores are also preparing. Starting in 2019, Rewe will no longer sell plastic, throw-away straws. Its 6,000 stores, either under the Rewe, Penny or Toom brand, sell on average 42 million plastic straws a year. Lidl too will remove plastic cutlery and straws from its offering by the end of 2019.

Other companies, like packaging maker Tetrapak and the US coffee company Starbucks, have also announced plans to forego plastic straws.

Halm’s founders were not willing to share concrete numbers about their business, saying only that operations are profitable and that their glass straws have prevented 300 billion plastic ones from being tossed in the bin.

Wisefood’s Eatapple straws

Wisefood’s co-founders set to work in 2015 experimenting with how to create straws from apple pomace, the solid mush leftover after all the juice has been pressed out.

After much trial and error, the fledgling company came away with straws, dubbed Eatapple, which are edible but have a short shelf life when inserted into drinks. “In alcohol, our straw keeps its shape for 45 minutes, in juice, for only 20,” co-founder Konstantin Neumann told DPA. They are hoping to improve their recipe so that the straws last between two and three hours.

The three co-founders, Mr. Neumann, Danilo Jovicic and Philipp Silbernagel, launched Wisefood in 2017 with the help of crowdfunding and since have received considerable attention, winning a prize from Germany’s Land of Ideas initiative this year.

Unlike Halm, which uses nearly 100-year-old machines to make their glass straws, Wisefood makes theirs in a spaghetti factory. The straws have a licorice-like texture and a package of 100 sells for close to $50.

The founders are working to get Eatapple straws in hotels and are in talks with German wholesaler Metro. If the single-use plastic ban passes next May, it’ll be good for both startups’ businesses.

Plus, according to the European Commission, the ban should help the bloc reduce annual CO2 emissions by 3.4 million tons and avoid environmental damage of around €22 billion by 2030 while saving consumers an estimated €6.5 billion. And they’re not grasping at straws.

Florian Kolf leads a team of correspondents, who cover the trading and consumer sector for Handelsblatt. Christine Coester is an editor for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors: kolf@handelsblatt.com and c.coester@handelsblattgroup.com

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