For two FAU grads, a surf trip inspires a record-breaking eco-business
It was supposed to be a relaxing vacation full of waves and sun—a graduation gift that FAU alumni and surfing buddies Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper gave themselves.
But their trip to the legendary surf breaks of Bali, Indonesia, in 2015 ended up catalyzing a career combining entrepreneurial spirit and environmental activism.
“We pretty much saw trash in the ocean from the sky,” recalls Cooper. “I walked off the plane, walked straight to a lifeguard and said, ‘How come nobody’s cleaning up this trash?’ And he simply responded, ‘It’s 3:30 in the afternoon. This is what happens when the tides change. We clean it every morning, and the trash just gets pushed back up shore.’ And that was the first time it opened our minds up to the ocean plastics problem.”
Schulze and Cooper put their business degrees to use. “The Bali locals are incredibly hard workers,” Schulze says. “And Andrew and I saw these guys working all day, all night in these areas, and fishing these waters, pulling plastic into their nets and throwing it back into the ocean. That’s when we said, how do we connect the dots? Why don’t we pay these guys to collect plastic instead of catching fish?”
So the two friends launched 4Ocean as a global ocean cleanup effort that has grown, in five years, to encompass 300 paid staff—many of whom head into the water on boats, six days a week, removing plastic and other harmful debris.
Schulze and Cooper, who run the corporate headquarters from Boca Raton, invested “their life savings” to fund the initial capital. But the retail side of the business has kept it afloat. Inspired by Kickstarter campaigns, the founders designed the 4Ocean Bracelet made from 100-percent post-consumer recycled materials; they’ve since added apparel, drinkware and cleanup gear, the sales of which fund their operations. The purchase of one $20 bracelet equates to the removal of one pound of ocean plastic.
“Scientists estimate more than 16 billion pounds of plastic enters the ocean every year,” Cooper says. The plastic entangles marine life, or degrades into microplastics that wind up in the stomachs of fish, turtles and seabirds, accelerating their deaths.
The trash that 4Ocean employees haul in is processed and dispersed to recycling centers or sustainable alternatives such as thermal treatment plants; as a last resort, some of it goes to landfills.
In February, the organization announced it had collected 8 million pounds of trash from our oceans. Publications from Newsweek to Forbes have recognized 4Ocean’s work, and in 2019 it set the Guinness World Record for the Largest Underwater Cleanup, when 633 people dove into the seas off Deerfield Beach to hunt for plastic.
At the time of this interview, Schulze and Cooper were dealing with coronavirus-related setbacks; they had to lay off 70 percent of their staff. “But we are determined to hunker down, maintain the business, and get through this,” Schulze says. “Everybody is ready to rock and roll.”