When friends and recent college grads Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper took a celebratory surf trip to Bali in 2015, they were perplexed by the amount of plastic on the beach and in the ocean. The trip they’d anticipated would be filled with warm-water barrels was spent detangling themselves from clusters of trash in the lineup. Schulze and Cooper weren’t the only ones the rampant pollution was putting a damper on, the two noticed local fishermen coming in each day discouraged by nets filled with more plastic than fish.

“We saw them taking all the plastic out of their nets and throwing it back in the ocean,” Cooper said about the fishermen. “We were like, ‘Why are you doing that? Stop throwing it back overboard into the ocean, that's why there're no fish left.’ They literally said, ‘Well, no one's paying us to collect plastic.'” A lightbulb went off in Schulze and Cooper’s entrepreneurial minds, they went back home to Florida and began drafting ways to convert the fishermen into fishers of plastic.

4Ocean was born. A for-profit business that establishes plastic economies around the world by paying fishermen whose livelihoods have been affected by pollution to catch plastic. The operation is funded by the sale of bracelets made from recovered materials but 4Ocean’s work and goals are much more complex and grandiose than simply selling jewelry made of ocean trash. Schulze and Cooper are driven problem solvers, rife with solutions to our beloved ocean’s plastic problem and they’re ambitious enough to see them through.

With the recent launch of a 135-foot boat destined for the filthiest river mouths in the world in an attempt to cut off plastic pollution at its source, and plans to build demand for raw materials made from the recovered plastic, 4Ocean is diversifying their ocean cleanup strategies. And they’ve only just begun.

SURFER called up Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper, the recent 2018 SURFER Awards recipients of the “Agents of Change” award, to learn more about 4Ocean’s fast-growing operation that has already pulled 2.6 million pounds of trash from our seas.

One man’s trash is becoming another man’s treasure by monetarily incentivizing local fisherman to clean their polluted waters. Frame grab from 4Oceans

You guys have built an economy around collecting plastic which is probably the greatest incentive for ocean cleanup so far. What were these fishermen's reactions when you told them, "We're going to pay you to catch trash"?

Alex Schulze: At first, nobody believes you. We just opened up a new headquarters in Haiti and when you try to explain to them that you're going to pay them to collect trash they don't believe you. Trying to explain it with the language barrier and the charades, you look pretty ridiculous. They wonder, "What's the catch?" Then when they really understand, they get unbelievably stoked. For them and their location it's ten times easier to go out and collect plastic than fish. In Bali, the fishermen were only coming back with small porgies and grunts at the end of the day that were not table fare by any means. We said to them, "This is insane! You guys are working 8, 10, 12, 14-hour days to come back with a few fish and all the while throwing plastic back in the water."

Are they going out and collecting plastic daily? Or are there specific time frames or days of the week that they're doing this?

Andrew Cooper: It's kind of evolved as we've become more of an established company. We've set up more specific processes and hired supervisors and managers. That's pretty much how it started but now we have full-time retired fisherman collecting plastic.

Schulze: They're collecting plastic seven days a week. In Bali, our guys take Sundays off and in Haiti we have rotations but it's seven days a week we have teams cleaning. We came up with the idea in Bali, came back to Florida and came up with the business model where Andrew and I could be hands-on and really prove the concept. We started cleaning the beaches in Florida ourselves, then, when we really got the business rolling, we hired our first captain. Then we hired our second, our third and we built out our entire team. We went back to Bali and started our entire operation and we just recently opened up in Haiti. Total, between all of our cleanup operations, we have over a 100 individuals in Haiti, 37 in Bali and about 30-35 on rotation here in Florida. We’ve got captains on the sea and boots on the ground.

It seems like creating this economy for plastic pollution by selling bracelets is kind of steamrolling into more endeavors. Not just a reactionary ocean cleanup but more proactive steps to cut the pollution off at its source.

Schulze: As we're going as a company, it's very important to understand that the bracelet was just a mere stepping stone into the bigger picture, which is creating the economy around the plastic. We wanted something that could be made from the materials we were collecting. A piece of jewelry, something small and affordable that could be a talking piece. Something that could really start that conversation about ocean plastic. Something like, "The bracelet's made from the trash 4Ocean’s collecting. They pull a pound of plastic for every one that's sold." It starts getting the conversation going about ocean plastic and pollution in general. It had the ability to propel us and the business to make the necessary steps to solve the ocean plastic problem.

After all of our experience and research, up to 90 percent of plastic is coming from land-based sources. It's coming from underdeveloped countries that have a lack of recycling infrastructure and lack of trash pickup in general. What happens in these different countries is that there's no incentive for people to clean-up after themselves. Plastic just gets thrown into the streets. As soon as it rains it comes surging out of the rivers and into the ocean. So the OPR (Ocean Plastic Recovery) is a 135-foot offshore supply vessel that will be going to these different rivermouths and installing these floating barricade systems that will be stopping plastic at the source. We then come in with our equipment to clean-up the plastic caught by the barricade and get the area to a point where it's maintainable. Then we have our teams constantly collecting plastic to stop it before it has a chance to enter the ocean.

With how much plastic you're collecting, there's got to be more uses for it than just creating the bracelets. Are there any other type of industrial materials that 4Ocean will start making as you guys grow?

Schulze: We have every intention on expanding. Our dream is to be able to use that plastic we're collecting to make sustainability-based products that consumers would want to be a part of. They could make their vote that they don't want to buy clothes from Nike, Under Armour or any other of these companies using virgin plastic and polyester. There's a wide array of things you can do with the plastic, and that's both recyclable plastic and the stuff that's deemed un-recyclable. We can make structurally based materials, we have every intention to make lumber for houses from the plastic we pull out of the ocean. We are doing everything we can to not only pull the plastic out of the ocean but find sustainable based solutions with that plastic. That's what's going to create that circular economy. If we can create products that are going to have the value behind them to fund these operations, then that's when we'll be able to go anywhere in the world and say this is a scalable and sustainable business model we have, we're going to make products out of this stuff and we want you guys to go pick it up.

Through recycling and refining the collected plastic, is there currently a way to make that material competitive in the raw materials marketplace that would appeal to large-scale companies currently using virgin plastic?

Cooper: Absolutely, that's one of our goals. When people ask why we're profit versus non-profit, there's a hundred different answers but one of the main ones I tell them is, "Just because you're doing good, doesn't mean that you have to be a non-profit." We live in a world of consumerism and every purchase we make is a vote and it's the big brands that are counting the ballots. If we can teach people to use their dollar to vote for a company that's doing good they will listen and these big brands will start using ocean plastic in their products. Or Coke will start saying, "For every soda purchased, we'll remove a bottle out of the ocean." You know what I mean? The reason why these big companies aren't doing things like this is because there's not enough attention on it right now. But if we can raise enough awareness, they'll start doing it.

Schulze: A non-profit is typically reliant on grants and other funding that you have to get that can be pulled away at any time. By creating a demand for this plastic in the ocean, it doesn't matter what happens. It's not like we're just trying to do this locally, we're trying to start a global movement that can truly change things. I think that with a business, Andrew and I have had the opportunity to scale quickly. We've gone from just the two of us cleaning to around 200 people. I think that that type of growth would not have been possible if we were a non-profit.

Balinese fisherman cast their nets for plastic. Frame grab from 4Oceans

One of the things that 4Ocean has done is partner with other organizations. Does that kind of help you trickle down into the non-profit sector of like-minded organizations?

Schulze: Correct. All of our partnerships have been with marine-related causes where we have been able to bring awareness to things that are happening. We've done coral restoration, sharks, sea turtles, basically everything that we're passionate about with companies that are both local to our area and some that are not. It's a way for us to help raise awareness for other great things that all of these non-profits are doing that we're stoked to back and get behind.

When I was first informed of 4Ocean, I didn't grasp the whole concept of it right away. I saw the bracelets and just assumed it was like a Toms Shoes "one-for-one" model that's been pretty popular over the years. I didn't understand the grand scale of your goals until I saw the video. What do you think could be done to get your mission out there?

Cooper: Marketing aside, the right partnerships. Using that for-profit private sector model to work with big brands and reach a lot of people. Using waste management type infrastructures that can reach a lot of people in the world and partnerships with PR. Utilizing brand influencers, accepting as many interviews as you can and getting on the news to explain what we're doing. Right now the challenge with this generation is that attention spans are really short. It's a little bit easier to grab people with that one-to-one pledge that you saw but it's harder to get people to the website to read and watch the two-minute video that explains what we're doing.

How can surfers help your mission?

Cooper: Understanding that small actions can have a huge impact. Just by adopting a sustainability lifestyle and cutting down the use of plastic. If you do have to use plastic make sure that it gets recycled so it doesn't end up in the trash and certainly not the ocean. A lot of people look up to surfers and kind of their approach to life and I think that we can be the role models for this entire approach to change the future of plastics in the ocean. We're trying to make ocean cleanup cool. We're the dirty guardsmen of the ocean but we're making it mainstream. We're doing what we can to try and make it look kind of badass. What we try to avoid is being seen as the group of people that get together for an hour on a Sunday and clean the beach but rather a more permanent solution to end the problem.

To learn more about 4Ocean, click here.

Agents of Change is presented by Cobian’s Every Step Matters (ESM) initiative. Learn how, by choosing Cobian footwear, you can make a positive impact and enrich the lives of others at Every Step Matters.