Entrepreneurs

These 20-something surfers started a company that's pulled 1 million pounds of garbage out of the ocean 

Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze in Haiti
4Ocean

In 2015, Florida surfers Andrew Cooper and Alex Schulze embarked on a post-college trip to Bali in search of big waves. What they found were beaches buried in garbage.

But the friends also came home with a big idea for a multimillion-dollar business to help clean the world's oceans.

A pollution solution

Cooper, 28, and Schulze, 27, first met as college students at Florida Atlantic University, where they both studied business and graduated in 2014. The following year, the two friends set off for a three-week surfing trip to Bali, Indonesia — an island in the Indian Ocean that's a mecca for the sport.

In addition to being popular with tourists, Indonesia is also second only to China among the world's biggest polluters. When Cooper and Schulze arrived, they were immediately struck by the massive pollution that chokes Bali's beaches with trash that washes up from the ocean.

"Pretty much right when we got [to the beach] the first thing we saw was an overwhelming amount of plastic," Cooper tells CNBC Make It. It was a vista strewn with everything from plastic bottles and bags to used food containers and other refuse.

Kedonganan beach, Bali, Indonesia
Muhammad Fauzy | NurPhoto via Getty Images

Cooper and Schulze saw so much plastic that they approached a lifeguard: "I said, 'Hey, man, how come there's all this plastic on the beach and no one's doing anything about it?'" Cooper recalls. The lifeguard responded that the government cleaned the beaches every morning, only to watch more and more trash wash up with the tide throughout the day.

"That was a real eye-opener for us," Cooper says.

The world's 8 million-ton problem

It was on that trip that Cooper and Schulze first had the idea that led them to found 4Ocean, a for-profit business that pulls plastic and glass waste from oceans around the world in order to repurpose it by making bracelets out of those recycled materials. 4Ocean sells each bracelet for $20 with the promise that the money from each purchase will fund one pound of trash removal.

In July, Boca Raton, Florida-based 4Ocean announced that it had pulled more than 1 million pounds of plastic, glass and other trash from the ocean since the company launched in January 2017. Cooper and Schulze say 4Ocean has sold just more than $30 million worth of recycled bracelets to fund their ongoing cleanup efforts.

They still have a long way to go.

Roughly 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped in the world's oceans each year, according to one study, and Indonesia accounts for more than 10 percent of that total. At the beginning of 2018, Bali's government declared a "garbage emergency" after local cleanup efforts on the island of more than 4 million people failed to mitigate the coastal trash problem despite workers sometimes hauling away as much as 100 tons of garbage per day.

4Ocean co-founders Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper.
Source: 4Ocean

The biggest reason for the massive amount of refuse that enters the world's oceans is a swelling global population that produces more and more waste, while a whopping 91 percent of the world's plastic waste has never been recycled, according to a study published in 2017. Pollution problems are especially bad in developing countries such as Indonesia, which can lack the necessary infrastructure to handle it.

Before they visited Indonesia, Cooper and Schulze were already aware of the country's trash problem. Both men are avid surfers, fishermen and licensed boat captains who have spent their lives on the waters of Southern Florida. The two literally "met on a boat" one day amid a group of surfers and mutual friends in the waters near their college in Boca Raton.

"When you spend that much time on the water you really have an affinity for the ocean and an appreciation for it," Schulze says.

An entrepreneurial answer

But it wasn't until they visited Bali themselves that Cooper and Schulze had an epiphany about an entrepreneurial method of attacking the problem.

Despite the garbage on Bali's beaches, the surf breaks were still crowded with surfers when Cooper and Schulze visited in 2015, they tell CNBC Make It, so they paid a local to take them to a private surfing area. Out on the water, they watched Balinese fishermen navigate their boats around masses of floating plastic and pull up fishing nets bulging with plastic bottles and trash. The fishermen simply tossed all of the rubbish, everything but the fish, back into the water, Cooper and Schulze say.

"They're pulling the nets back in and taking the plastic out of their nets and throwing it back overboard, and the boats are driving around these islands of plastic," Cooper says.

Cooper asked one fisherman: "'How come you guys aren't taking this plastic back and recycling it? You're just throwing it back in the water where it doesn't belong.' And, they simply responded, 'Well, we don't get paid to pick up plastic, we get paid to pick up fish.'"

That response was another eye-opener for the two Americans, who say at that moment their business sense kicked in. "Well, there's a demand for seafood, there's not a demand for plastic, so you can't get mad at him," Cooper says. "And, that's when we really came up with this light bulb idea of 'Can we shift the demand from seafood to plastic?'"

It was just a kernel, but Cooper and Schulze couldn't stop thinking about it when they returned home. "We told our families we had this crazy idea," Cooper says, adding that the pair knew they wanted to manufacture and sell a product made from recycled marine waste — they just weren't yet sure what the product would be.

"We knew that we wanted it to be gender neutral," Cooper says. "We knew that it didn't need to be too much of a statement of your personality or your outfit — very subtle and subliminal — but still a talking point. And, the bracelet just kind of evolved itself out of all that."

Cooper and Schulze spent most of 2016 laying the groundwork for the launch of 4Ocean. They designed a logo and a prototype for the bracelet and found a local manufacturing partner who could make it, giving them something to put on social media as well as the website they designed to lay out their mission and solicit orders.

The pair had already started doing their own cleanups at the beaches near Boca Raton to get the materials for the first batch of bracelets, which feature clear beads made from recycled glass and a colored cord made from recycled plastic. The cords are available in a range of colors, from the original deep sea blue to dark red or bright green.

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The initial reactions Cooper and Schulze got from their family and friends was "'you guys are crazy mad scientists. This is never going to work, but I hope it does!'" Cooper says. But after they saw the first prototype of the bracelet and the 4Ocean website, they started to believe.

Getting off the ground

For more than a year between their trip to Bali and the January 2017 launch of 4Ocean, Cooper and Schulze continued to work their respective day jobs. Both men had obtained their boat captain's licenses while in college, taking gigs on the water to help pay their way through school. After graduating, Cooper remained working as a tow-boat captain with the Florida company Sea Tow, while Schulze led chartered fishing tours for tourists and sport fishermen off the coast of Southern Florida.

The two co-founders saved all the money they could — roughly $2,500 apiece initially — to get the company started. The capital went toward the bracelet prototypes as well as a year-long lease for office space in Boca Raton at about $500 a month.

But it didn't take long before enough people started visiting 4Ocean.com and pre-ordering $20 bracelets, with the promise that each purchase would pay for one pound of garbage being removed from the ocean, to allow the pair to quit their jobs and work on 4Ocean full-time.

"I think we said if we sell 20 bracelets a day, that's all we need to do," Cooper says. "'I'll wake up in the morning, I'll walk to beach, I'll pull 20 pounds and we'll quit our jobs and we'll do this full time.' And, we were selling 20 bracelets a day before we knew it."

In fact, 4Ocean sold 20 bracelets on its first day of online sales and enough to pick up over 250,000 pounds of ocean garbage over the course of 2017.

Cooper and Schulze place the credit for 4Ocean's rapid growth on their ability to be "really scrappy." 4Ocean got off the ground with Cooper and Schulze themselves picking up pieces of trash from beaches and waterways in Florida, and the company now employs over 180 people around the world, including cleanup boats and crews that work full-time pulling trash out of the ocean.

A 4Ocean boat
Source: 4Ocean

4Ocean employees have pulled over 1.1 million pounds of garbage from the waters around Florida, Indonesia and Haiti since the company launched.

Cooper and Schulze did not reveal how much their crews are paid, but they tell CNBC Make It it's a "considerable amount" and that all of the 4Ocean employees are full-time workers with full medical benefits. (For what it's worth, the minimum wage in Bali is currently just more than $140 per month, and the Indonesian government introduced a universal health care system in 2014 for the country of 250 million people. In 2017, the median pay for fishermen in the United States was $28,530, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.)

More than 40 percent of the profits 4Ocean sees from selling bracelets (which are now made in Bali) is spent on the company's cleanup operations, with another roughly 10 percent going to 4Ocean's various charity partners, including non-profit organizations focused on marine life like the Coral Restoration Foundation and Project Aware, according to Cooper and Schulze. The two co-founders take salaries of $50,000 per year apiece, with the rest of 4Ocean's profits getting invested back in the business to continue expanding the cleanup operations.

4Ocean has also recently put other items up for sale, from t-shirts to reusable steel water bottles, that also make money to fund the company's cleanup operations. It has never taken on outside investment.

4Ocean products
Source: 4Ocean

Next stop: 10 million

Cooper and Schulze started 4Ocean with the goal of making a dent in the billions of pounds of marine waste that litter the world's oceans, but they still say it's hard to believe that their company has already managed to remove more than a million pounds of marine waste. 

"It literally is unbelievable to think that just a year-and-a-half ago, Andrew and I were sitting in that office just ourselves," Schulze says. "I mean, you know, every single day you've got to kind of pinch yourself."

Over the past few years, one thing that has been cemented in the minds of Cooper and Schulze is that ocean waste is such a global problem.

"The strange thing is just seeing trash that comes from all over the world," Cooper says. "In South Florida, we've gotten trash with Chinese letters, trash from Haiti and the island of Hispaniola. And, then vice versa. In Bali you'll get trash from India, Sri Lanka, China."

In that way, part of 4Ocean's mission is to help prevent people around the world from contributing to the problem of marine waste. "I think the craziest thing about it is you see this trash that's come in and it's gone through this incredible journey, literally traveling the world, and it ends up right on our doorstep…" Schulze says. "People don't realize that it really does travel the world and ends up in people's beaches [and] coastlines and it doesn't break down."

4Ocean co-founders Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper
Source: 4Ocean

Of course, 4Ocean is not alone in trying to clean up the world's oceans. The non-profit group Ocean Conservancy, founded in 1972, has relied on hundreds of thousands of volunteers to collect over 220 million pounds of garbage from the world's oceans over several decades, while any number of other advocacy organizations and startups are looking for ways to tackle the world's ocean waste problem through advocacy and new technology.

But, with 4Ocean, Cooper and Schulze at least feel they have hit on a unique solution to the ocean's trash issue that blends advocacy with an entrepreneurial twist that they hope will fuel the company's continued growth. They're hoping that by creating an economy for the glass and plastic in the ocean, they will be able to continue growing rapidly by recruiting more paid employees to their clean-up crews in the U.S. and abroad.

The next goal for Cooper and Schulze is to reach 10 million pounds of garbage pulled from the ocean, and they tell CNBC Make It that they think they can hit that milestone by the middle of 2019. And, ultimately, they hope to eventually turn 4Ocean into the world's largest organization dedicated to cleaning the ocean.

"I want to have an area where not only I get to [enjoy] but my kids can grow up and enjoy the ocean, as well. And, at the rate we're going, with the way plastic is being produced and how it's being handled, it's threatening that entire situation severely," Schulze says. "So, you know, it's our opportunity to do something now to have a better future for everybody."

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