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A Fighting Chance

8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the ocean every year.
4ocean strives to make a dent in that number.

Nearly 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. For comparison, that’s almost the weight of 90 aircraft carriers.

Nearly 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. For comparison, that’s almost the weight of 90 aircraft carriers.

The pandemic is having untold reverberations throughout different cross-sections of society, upending healthcare systems and sending economies into a tailspin, but an unintended upshot is a reduction in air pollution. As people the world over hunker down, working remotely and self-isolating when possible, a small silver lining has been a cutback in overall emissions caused by automobiles and air travel. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the same can’t be said for discarded waste. The pandemic has brought about a pronounced uptick in the use of plastic, the main component in masks, gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, takeout containers, packaging and other items necessary for our new hyper-vigilant way of life. Insidiously, single-use plastic has made a comeback. Organizations that are diligently removing plastic report a large influx of personal protective equipment in waterways.

Enter 4ocean. The purpose-driven public benefit corporation was founded in 2017 by Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper of Southeast Florida after a once-in-a-lifetime surf trip to Bali opened their eyes to the magnitude of plastic pollution. Thanks to a grassroots campaign of captains and crews around the world working seven days a week, 4ocean has recovered over 10 million pounds of waste in the last three years alone. That number is set to increase after partnering with Safe Habor Marinas and deploying harbor skimmers that constantly remove waste from the water.

On a trip to Bali, 4ocean founders Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper came across “trash-filled waves delivering more garbage with each break.”

On a trip to Bali, 4ocean founders Alex Schulze and Andrew Cooper came across “trash-filled waves delivering more garbage with each break.”

We spoke with Schulze about plastic accumulation, 4ocean’s work in the face of the pandemic and the new harbor skimmer technology.

Power & Motoryacht: Alex, first of all, 10 million pounds is no small number. How was that accomplished? Are your teams being affected by the pandemic?

Schulze: I appreciate that; we’ve been busy. We’ve got cleanup headquarters all around the world, in Bali, Guatemala, Haiti and Florida. And our teams have been doing a great job.

Right at this exact moment we actually have our Haiti operation paused, and our Guatemala operation is on the one-yard line getting ready for launch. We’re working hard to get our teams back up, and we’re hoping they’re going to be up very soon. Guatemala is a new operation for us. We have our facility built. We’ve got all our boats purchased. We were just about ready to hire captains and crews to get them out on the water—and then the pandemic struck. That’s the big goal for us: stopping plastic at the source in Guatemala. There’s a large river there, the Río Motagua, and there’s a lot of plastic entering the ocean. That’s where we want to set up our headquarters.

Power & Motoryacht: How has the pandemic affected our waterways?

Schulze: Our cleanup crews are finding hundreds of masks all around the world right now. Unfortunately, single-use and reusable masks are not being discarded responsibly and are ending up in sewers and waterways. All we ask is please make sure you discard your masks responsibly. If you have over-purchased PPE, we recommend donating them to medical centers. If you want to recycle, we recommend looking into third-party organizations like Terracycle who provide zero-waste receptacles for your home that you can fill and ship back to them for proper recycling. Otherwise, make sure you are discarding your PPE into proper waste receptacles and do what you can to ensure it’s closed and not open-air.

Power & Motoryacht: Why did you choose to partner with Safe Harbor?

Schulze: Safe Harbor is a large chain of marinas that has enough coverage in different areas to install various mobile skimmers, and their initiative and mission really aligned with ours as far as -moving the “clean ocean” movement forward. After having discussions with [Safe Harbor] Chief Marketing Officer Brad Alesi and learning about the message they were trying to get across—not only using the skimmers as a tool to clean the local marinas, but also using them as a tool for education and inspiration in regards to all the plastic that’s ending up in the ocean—we figured it would be a good match, and that’s why we moved forward.

4ocean’s harbor skimmers are designed to be easily accessible.

4ocean’s harbor skimmers are designed to be easily accessible.

Power & Motoryacht: Is there an easy way to describe how the technology works?

Schulze: The way that it works is it uses similar technology to a pool skimmer; it uses the constant inflow of water to create a suction on the surface that pulls plastic and debris into the machine. So it’s pumping water out of the unit itself, and that creates an inflow of water at the open port. The machine can be serviced by lifting up the gate, and then all the plastic and debris can be removed.

Power & Motoryacht: How many locations have deployed these Harbor Skimmers so far?

Schulze: The first Harbor Skimmers ever used were distributed to Safe Harbor Old Port Cove, Calusa Island, Burnt Store and Pier 77. The machines were strategically positioned in a location within each marina basin that tends to accumulate floating debris and plastic so the skimmers can have maximum impact.

We chose the Florida locations for our pilot program because this is our first launch of these machines. We had them custom manufactured and, as always, when coming up with new ideas and manufacturing new tech, there’s going to be bugs and kinks you need to work through. So all the locations are in close proximity to our headquarters, and we’re able to keep up to date with them, constantly improving and making any changes necessary.

Power & Motoryacht: How much did you tweak the design to work within the marinas?

Schulze: The machines are designed to be very flexible with each location, and they can be installed in different areas of a marina: in a corner, on a floating dock, out near a peninsula—it really depends on the location and application. But each machine can be fine-tuned to the exact area where it’s being installed. We have made modifications after installation to suit different areas.

Power & Motoryacht: Are they all the same size, or will there be various sizes for each marina?

Schulze: What we’re learning is some marinas need smaller machines for smaller areas and some need larger—and that’s something we’re working through as far as improvements and changes being made to the new models. But we are forecasting that there will be different sizes.

Power & Motoryacht: At how many marinas across the Safe Harbor network do you plan on deploying this technology?

Schulze: That really depends on the outcome of the pilot program, but our hopes are to be able to expand these machines all over the U.S. and eventually all over the world. So it really just depends on timing. The marinas also need to understand what has to go into this from a maintenance perspective and a recycling perspective.

Power & Motoryacht: How expensive are the harbor skimmers to produce? What are the challenges in scaling up?

Schulze: You know, it depends. One of the big factors in cost is without a doubt the price of aluminum. The pump, the motors, all of the electronics—the components are quite expensive, and some of those fluctuate with the market, as the price of aluminum goes up and down. We’re constantly looking to improve the overall design and produce machines more efficiently and cost effectively. But right now we are able to sell machines, cover cost and invest in R&D and design concepts that we can constantly improve on.

Power & Motoryacht: Are there any metrics on how much plastic each machine can remove in an hour or a day?

Schulze: That is a tough one to answer, because I would hate to set expectations and not meet them. And what I mean by that is if you install one machine in a heavily polluted area, it can pull in a massive amount of plastic. But if it’s installed in a relatively clean area, you’re only going to collect what’s there. It has the ability to pull in a large amount of plastic.

This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.