What would you do if, almost overnight, you had nearly all the money you needed to solve one of the world’s problems?
It’s a question that sounds hypothetical; a parlor game that could never happen in real life.
Except that it did for two Florida Atlantic University grads, who, in a matter of months, found themselves with $40 million and an untested idea of how to spend it.
It started back in 2015, when Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze took a surfing trip to Bali, Indonesia. The trip was a bit of a celebration, having just finished at FAU. They imagined nothing more than days searching for the perfect wave.
Cooper, 28, and Schulze, 27, found the beach littered with trash. They asked a lifeguard about it, and they learned that, with no real trash disposal service on the island, people just dump garbage in the rivers. Every day, plastic containers, and wrappers, and random flotsam washes up with the tide.
They saw local fishermen nearby, most returning to shore with almost empty boats. “That’s when we had this crazy idea,” Schulze says. “We thought, ‘What if we hired these fishermen to pick up the trash?’”
Their second crazy idea came later, when they were thinking about how to pay for an army of ocean trash collectors: They decided to start selling bracelets. “We started telling our friends about it,” Cooper recalls, “and nobody thought it would work.”
They designed a simple bracelet made out of bits of recycled plastic and glass, tied together with thread. And right away, when they started selling it in January 2017, people went nuts for the jewelry. With little marketing, they got thousands, then tens of thousands, then eventually hundreds of thousands of orders for the bracelets.
“It took off almost immediately,” Cooper says of the company they named 4ocean. “It used to be that you have a good idea and maybe it takes off or not. Now with the internet, a good idea can have virality.”
Raising $40 million in such a short time has its difficulties. Cooper and Schulze have had to rapidly scale up a company that didn’t exist two years ago. They now have 160 employees in Florida, with a headquarters near Clint Moore Road and Military Trail in Boca Raton. They have another 100 staffers in Haiti and 47 more in Bali. Hiring them all in a matter of months has taken far more work than they imagined for this project.
“We’ve dedicated our lives to it; 14-hour days, seven days a week,” Cooper says.
Their efforts focus on two goals. First, they employ locals in developing nations to clean trash from coastal waters and beaches. Then, they try to educate people to prevent the problem of trash getting dumped in rivers and drainage canals. After hiring the staff, logistics are the other major hurdle; Cooper and Schulze have had to negotiate trucks to pick up the trash and recycling centers to process it.
They’ve worked now in 27 countries, in the Caribbean to Southeast Asia, and they hope someday to be in every corner of the globe, in every ocean. In total, they say they’ve collected 2 million pounds of trash. That’s still just a dent in the problem: 8 million tons of plastic waste get dumped every year in the oceans.
In November, 4ocean took a major step forward by spending $1 million to buy and outfit a new ship to help with ocean cleanup efforts. Ironically, the 135-foot plastic-recovery vessel had a previous life working in the oil and gas industry in Louisiana. Now, it has been outfitted with an excavator, landing crafts and collection booms. After launching the ship in Fort Lauderdale in fall, they expected to set sail for Hispaniola to cruise the coast collecting trash that floats offshore every day. With a crew of 10, it can store 310,000 pounds of trash.
From here, they plan to scale up, repeating their system in any country with offshore trash problems.
“We’ve proven this works,” Cooper says. “Now we just have to repeat in country after country.”