Andrew Cooper had always been drawn to the water. When the Central Florida native went south for college, he found a less-than-traditional way to earn money while at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton: The licensed captain worked for Sea Tow in Fort Lauderdale.
It was also at FAU that Cooper met Alex Schulze. Like Cooper, Schulze’s an avid Florida outdoorsman who also had an entrepreneurial streak. In 2015 and not long out of FAU, the pair went on a surfing vacation to Bali, Indonesia.
“We are both fishermen and surfers,” Cooper says. “Because we’re both fishermen, the first thing we did was walk down the dock to see the fishing boats, and what they’re catching.”
When they got to the water, they were stunned. Trash floating everywhere. They chatted to a few fishermen and asked, why doesn’t anybody ever pick this up?
The answer can be summarized thusly: We get paid for fish. Nobody here gets paid to scoop trash out of the ocean.
For Cooper and Schulze, that was the light-bulb moment. Now, four years later – and less than two years since the official launch of 4Ocean, their company that funds ocean and coastline cleaning through sales of bracelets made from recyclables – the pair are taking their South Florida-based operation worldwide.
In terms of ocean and coastline work, 4Ocean’s methods are straightforward. They’ve organized coastal cleanups in a growing number of countries around the world. When they’re more established somewhere, they get to work with the more in-depth program – boats with crews dedicated to cruising the waters, picking up trash.
From the beginning, Cooper and Schulze, who’s also a licensed captain, both understood this side of things. As boaters, they knew from the beginning where trash congregates in the waters of South Florida. As surfers, they knew the wind patterns that would mean more trash getting blown in.
Other things required more study. Such as what to do with the trash once you’ve got it. “The waste management was a learning curve,” Cooper says.
The organization launched at the beginning of last year, and in a year and a half has already become a global ally for the oceans. The made-from-recyclables bracelets bring in the money that funds the cleanup boats and crew. Bracelets sell for $20 each and in addition to the standard one, there are monthly special editions. (Recent special edition bracelets include one for whales and another for Earth Day.)
“The bracelet’s perfect because it’s not like a T-shirt where you wear it once a month or once a week,” Cooper says. “It stays with you.”
In addition to Boca, 4Ocean now has a headquarters in Bali, where that fateful encounter with local fishermen took place. The organization has also organized and partnered with local organizations on beach cleanups around the world, from El Salvador to Cyprus to the Philippines. Another international headquarters is expected to be announced soon.
It’s an understatement, Cooper says, to say that this has all come together quickly. In 2015 when they came up with the idea after the encounter with the fishermen, they’d had a little success with jewelry e-commerce. They thought that business model – selling something like bracelets on the internet – was something that could help fund their new project.
“We said we can launch this in two months and we’ll be good to go [in] January 2016,” Cooper says. That turned out to be a bit optimistic.
A year and $90K later, they sold their first bracelet in January of 2017. They put their own money – “our life savings,” as Cooper puts it – into the idea of funding ocean cleanups through bracelet sales.
“I think from the market research prior we knew we had something big, but I don’t think either of us knew how big the iceberg was under the tip.”
Less than two years later, they’re figuring it out.
“Our original plan: One boat in the United States operated by one captain and one crew member could remove 500 pounds a day,” Cooper says.
By July 2017, that had expanded to four boats and a handful of captains, which allowed the boats to go out seven days a week. It all just kept growing. From their Boca base, they felt the next step was to take it global – and in particular, to the country where they’d got the idea in the first place.
“We knew the United States was not going to be the border we operated out of,” Cooper says. “We wanted to bring it back to Bali almost immediately.”
Cooper says they’ve never taken outside money; 4Ocean was funded by their savings and then the sale of bracelets. At first, that meant funds were limited.
“When we started, we couldn’t even afford to get the bracelets made in Bali,” Cooper says. “We had to have them made in China.”
Now in addition to ocean cleanup crews, the Bali operation includes local artisans who make the bracelets. 4Ocean employs 27 full-time workers in Bali. “And I hope to increase that number,” Cooper says, “by a factor of 10.”