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Solving for the Ocean Plastic Crisis: 4Ocean in Conversation

Sustainability Leaders Nos Balados 03 novembre 2023
Sustainability Leaders Nos Balados 03 novembre 2023
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“One of our slogans that we say a lot is it's a nudge don't judge. We're trying to nudge people in the right direction and not judge. We're trying not use shaming and guilt, and finger pointing, but rather work with these brands and partners to help create a more sustainable model.”—Alex Schulze, Co-Founder & CEO of 4Ocean

Melissa Fifield, Head of the BMO Climate Institute, sat down with Alex Schulze to discuss 4Ocean; ‘one of the only companies in the world that directly manages a global ocean cleanup operation.’

Listen to our ~20-minute episode:

 

 

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Alex Schultz:

One of our slogans that we say a lot is it's a nudge, don't judge. Right? We're trying to nudge people in the right direction and not judge. We're trying to not use shaming and guilt, but rather work with these brands to help create a more sustainable model. That's why I think partnerships is so important, the ability to scale cleanups. There's billions and billions of pounds of plastic that's entering the ocean every single year, and we need to create a business model that can fund more people to clean the ocean.

Michael Torrance:

Welcome to Sustainability Leaders. I'm Michael Torrance, chief sustainability officer with BMO Financial Group. On this show, we will talk with leading sustainability practitioners from the corporate, investor, academic, and NGO communities to explore how this rapidly evolving field of sustainability is impacting global investment business practices and our world.

Melissa Fifield:

The views expressed here are those of the participants and not those of Bank of Montreal, its affiliates or subsidiaries. I'm Melissa Fifield, head of the BMO Climate Institute, and I'm pleased to be joined today by Alex Schultz, co-founder and CEO of 4ocean. Alex, thanks so much for joining me.

Alex Schultz:

Of course. Thank you so much for having me on, Melissa. Really appreciate it.

Melissa Fifield:

Maybe you can start by giving our listeners just a quick overview of 4ocean, why it was established and really how it's come to be.

Alex Schultz:

Sure. 4ocean was started back in 2017 by a buddy and I. We actually went on a surf trip to Bali, Indonesia, and we saw a crazy amount of plastic on the coastlines and in the ocean there, and we wanted to find a way that we could fund the captains and crews to essentially collect plastic from the ocean instead of catching fish. We came up with the idea, we came back to Florida, we thought about how we could really make the connection, and we came up with the idea for the 4ocean bracelet, and that's a bracelet made from recycled materials. And for everyone sold, we would remove one pound of trash from the ocean. The idea took off pretty quickly and we started locally in Florida and then we expanded into Bali, Indonesia, Guatemala, and now we employ over 200 full-time captains and crews around the world. To date, we've removed over 30 million pounds of trash from the ocean.

Melissa Fifield:

That's incredible. What an inspiring model. Why are you not a nonprofit? Tell me a little bit about how you've structured the organization.

Alex Schultz:

Sure. We are actually a public benefit corporation as well as a certified B corporation. Public benefit corporation comparable to Patagonia, Ben and Jerry's, basically businesses leveraging business as a force for good for the planet. We wanted to build a business model because when we looked at the nonprofit models, we really wanted to find a way to create a sustainable model that could be funded well into the future even far after we're gone. I think that the goal is to really create a model that can fund our cleanups in perpetuity and be able to establish these different business partnerships and product sales and build a market out of the materials that we're collecting. The product was, what we say, is like the first stepping stone to the bigger picture. Selling the bracelet was kind of like our Kickstarter campaign.

As we've gained momentum, we've really moved into different areas of the business. I think that's one of the main reasons why we wanted to start a business instead of a nonprofit. Historically, just looking at the industry, we wanted to also leverage mainstream tactics. I've always been a huge advocate and a big fan of brands that have done a great job creating movements. You think about Nike, their slogan is if you have a body, you're an athlete. If you think about Yeti, they've built a network of individuals that are passionate about the outdoors and spending time in the outdoors. I think for us it was trying to leverage mainstream tactics, social media, influencers, athletes, celebrities, trying to get more people involved in ocean cleanup and just ocean conservation as a whole. For me, it was really important to find a model that could help fund our cleanups as well as influence individuals to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

I always looked up to different individuals like Yvon Chouinard from Patagonia, Blake Mikoski from Toms with his original one for one model, and just seeing these entrepreneurs that have been able to build amazing businesses that are having a tremendous impact on the planet. That's really why we started a purpose-driven business and a social enterprise versus a nonprofit.

Melissa Fifield:

So cool. I love that. Very inspiring. I'd love to help our listeners understand the process of your cleanup operations. Where are you doing this work? How does it all work?

Alex Schultz:

Sure. Our cleanups are based out of Florida, Bali, Java, Indonesia, and Guatemala. We employ all of our captains and crews directly. We've hired local captains, local crews, these are full-time salaried employees. These are not volunteers. We do not just do a beach cleanup on Saturday. These are professional captains and crews that are paid a living wage and we cover 100% of health insurance and benefits. We actually have a 98% retention rate with our cleanup crews around the world. The way that it works is we have small skiffs, so we don't have giant vessels and a lot of super expensive technology and equipment. We really go about it in a pretty basic and simple format. We leverage our skiffs, small pangas, small Carolina skiffs, small boats, and we go out into the ocean, I'd say near coastal water. We typically operate within two miles from shore and we're cleaning up near coastal waters as well as beaches and coastlines.

Our captains and crews are heading out every single day and they're going to clean up different coastlines and different beaches and oceans in all these different areas. How it starts out is our captains and crews in the morning, they take a photo of the crew, we document everybody that's going out on the cleanup as well as our lead captain. They take photos of before, during, and after our entire cleanup to show exactly where the plastic was collected and the clean areas after our team had been there. Then, all of that plastic is then brought back to our facility where we then prioritize it for recycling. Everything is weighed, documented, and photographed as well. Then all of that information is uploaded to our trash tracker, which is an app that we've built and developed to track all of the pounds that we've removed.

You can actually go back to 2017 and pick any day and find out exactly where the cleanup happened, who was the lead captain, what were the crew members on it, how much time did they spend cleaning, where did they clean up? Then, all of the photos that are attached to that as well. You can see exactly where we have remove this plastic and clean up these coastlines. After the plastic is at our facility, we then sort it by type, color and condition and prepare it for recycling.

What we'll do is we'll sort it by all the different types. We will bail that and compress it into larger cubes that are then ready for transport to be sent to a recycler. It depends on the location. We have various different recycling partners, but they then turn that into basically a usable material. It will typically go through a sorting, grinding, hot wash, flaking, and impelletizing process to be turned back into feedstock that can make new products out of the material that we're collecting. I will be honest, there is some materials that are just too contaminated, the dirty diapers, the thread and the fabric that's just covered in mud and muck. There are materials that we look for the most sustainable outlet possible in these different areas. At times, it is landfill, but we are always looking for new and innovative ways to process the very difficult to recycle materials.

Melissa Fifield:

I'm sure you must have so many stories from your crew members or even your own experience out on the water. I'd love for you to share with our audience something meaningful that you've experienced out there or a story that you have about your work.

Alex Schultz:

I think some of the most meaningful times that we've had, and at least some of the times that I feel the most proud is when our crew comes across different instances where animals, wildlife are either entangled or trapped in marine debris and they're able to essentially cut them free. Not long ago we had our Bali and Indonesia team that came up and they were offshore collecting plastic, and they came up on something and saw it just kind of bobbing in the ocean and they drove over to it and it ended up being a dolphin that had monofilament fishing line wrapped around its tail wrapped around its nose, and it was literally bobbing on the brink of drowning. They quickly pulled the dolphin onto the vessel, very carefully took knives and scissors and were able to cut all of that fishing line off and then release the dolphin and it literally swam off and was bobbing and weaving and the team was all celebrating.

It was just a really cool moment to see that our teams can have a direct impact and we're out there cleaning plastic seven days a week, but it's really cool to see the direct impact when it comes to wildlife, the animals in the ocean, and just the reason why we love the ocean. I think that's super cool for me and that's one of the stories and one of the most impactful things for me overall. They come across turtles and birds and dolphins and all types of animals that are either entangled in fishing gear or nets or ingesting plastic. I think that's just one of the things that we are trying to raise awareness about and get more people involved to understand that this plastic is having an impact on the ocean and the animals and wildlife in it.

Melissa Fifield:

It just speaks to the type of impact that you're out there having maybe more than you even bargained for when you set out on this journey.

Alex Schultz:

I can tell you that there's a whole lot more than we bargained for when we first set off, yes. We also have an incredible team here. Everybody from the team members and crew members that are helping run the operations and run the full business to the individuals that are daily out there on the water. Everybody's just so passionate about what we do and we've got a great, great team that works incredibly hard and everybody's in it for the right reason and really wants to see our cleanups expand and be able to have more of an impact on these local areas.

Melissa Fifield:

I imagine that partnerships obviously are a big part of your success. Can you speak to the other types of companies and organizations you're partnering with to address these problems and help clean up the ocean?

Alex Schultz:

Yes, absolutely. Our partnerships program has been a new area for the business that is really helping to scale our cleanups in a massive way. I mentioned earlier that the products we viewed as our Kickstarter campaign, the bracelet was our first opportunity to pitch the idea of what we're trying to do, what we're trying to build, and we've been able to generate a tremendous amount of momentum with that. We're fortunate enough to be able to grow a social media following of over 10 million followers across all platforms, and that's been fantastic. What we're doing now is we're moving into the next phase of the business where we're actually working with and partnering with large businesses and large brands to help drive their sustainability efforts forward. We have a few different partnership options that we have available, one of them being a plastic neutrality partnership program.

We work with brands that are producing products that may have plastic in their packaging and we measure the amount of plastic that they use in their goods or services, and then we remove the equivalent amount of plastic directly from the ocean and essentially accomplishing plastic neutrality or a plastic offset. It's very comparable to carbon offsets. It's very tangible. You can see the direct impact, you can calculate it very clearly, and you can see the amount of plastic removed from the ocean. I like to tell everybody, this is not the silver bullet by any means. Our hope and our intention is that while we're working with these brands, they're trying to implement more sustainable solutions to their packaging. This is essentially a stepping stone to that brighter future of a more sustainable packaging solution.

Our goal is to work with businesses and brands that are trying to have an impact on the amount of plastic that they're potentially putting out into the environment and help scale our cleanup operations. We have a couple other partnership options as well, one of them being our certified cleanup partnership. And that's essentially where we work with various different brands and businesses to remove a specific amount of plastic directly from the ocean, essentially sponsoring a cleanup activation. We're able to open up new locations, new facilities, purchase more vessels, and then be able to showcase that brand or business's impact and provide them with the tools and resources they need to communicate their impact.

There's a lot of different ways, and we've been able to partner with some great brands like Garmin and SeaDoo, Good Pop, a lot of great brands that are really looking to push their sustainability efforts forward. I'm a big fan of it because I think that we're able to diversify our revenue streams and build that sustainable business model across the board that allows us to go through ups and downs like Covid and other impacts like that that typically happen to a business and just allow us to fund our cleanups and scale as large as we can around the world.

Melissa Fifield:

That's great. So incredible. It sounds like there's a lot of lessons there, not only for nonprofit organizations, but for businesses as well in terms of what you've been able to do to weather those storms, so to speak, and also that you're solving an acute need while also having an eye on how to reduce the amount of plastic that's going into the environment in the first place. That's really incredible.

Alex Schultz:

Yes, and that's actually one of my main goals is really to leverage our business, leverage our brand to drive as much awareness as we can. I say this a lot, but corporations are producing plastic for brands and brands are producing plastic for consumers. The more awareness that we can drive and the more just overall impact that we can have on people understanding the amount of plastic that is entering the ocean and us using the photos and imagery and videos to show what's happening to the ocean, that's what's going to truly connect and have an impact in the amount of ocean plastic that's entering every single year. We say that cleaning the ocean alone will not solve the ocean plastic crisis. We need to turn off the tap.

A great metaphor is if you walked into your kitchen and the sink was overflowing, would you grab a mop and start mopping or would you try and shut off the faucet and then start cleaning it up? That's essentially where the term turn off the tap has come with stopping plastic and the overall production and consumption of mass amounts of single use plastic. I think that's a dream for me is to be able to leverage our brand to be able to work side by side with these large brands and businesses to build more sustainable models as well as influence consumers to make more sustainable choices across the board when it comes to their plastic consumption.

Melissa Fifield:

I'd like to double click on this idea of partnerships. Why do you think partnerships are so important?

Alex Schultz:

I think partnerships are super important for the journey to net-zero when it comes to plastic because the large brands are the ones that are producing these plastic materials. There's been a lot of commitments in the past 10 years as far as buy x date, we're going to cut out single use plastics, and those dates tend to get pushed back and back and back and back. Listen, I get it. I know exactly how difficult it could be to just flip an entire business model and change everything about how they operate, but I do believe that businesses really want to do the right thing when it comes to sustainability. I don't think anybody wakes up in the morning and says, "Hey, I want to put and produce as much harmful material as I can and destroy the ocean." I don't think anybody's doing that.

I think, for us, partnerships are so important because with a business, it kind of goes back to the idea and concept. We could sit from the outside and be very upset with brands and only just drive awareness and point fingers. One of our slogans that we say a lot is it's a nudge, don't judge. Right? We're trying to nudge people in the right direction and not judge. We're trying to not use shaming and guilt and finger pointing, but rather work with these brands and work with these partners to help create a more sustainable model. I really believe that the impact and change happens from within the boardroom, partnering with these brands and working alongside them versus being very combative and working from the outside and really shaming them. So that's why I think partnerships is so important. Just also the ability to scale cleanups.

There's billions and billions of pounds of plastic that's entering the ocean every single year, and we need to create a business model that can fund more people to clean the ocean, fund more plastic collected from the streets, the environments, these different areas where ocean bound plastic is ending up in the ocean. There's a lot of different business models that are starting to pop up that are incentivizing locals and incentivizing communities to collect plastic and get paid for that. It goes to us paying our captains and crews full time. We're trying to create jobs and create an economy around this material. It's not seen as waste, but rather it's used as a commodity. It's used to generate an income and just fund the removal of plastic from the environment. I think our partnerships are a great opportunity for us to work with brands and help them find more sustainable solutions and in the process fund hundreds of captains and crews.

We have such an amazing team and we cover, as I mentioned, health insurance, benefits, full-time salaries. Our team works so hard and they do such an amazing job, and I'm just doing everything that I can to scale those cleanups and get more boats on the water and clean up more plastic out of the ocean.

Melissa Fifield:

Nudge, don't judge, I'm taking that away. I love that.

Alex Schultz:

Yes. There's a lot. There's nudge, don't judge, which is a big one. One thing that I hammer home is it's progress, not perfection. Because a lot of people are very curious about sustainability and cutting down on plastic, but they're a little intimidated because frankly, it's very hard to change your lifestyle habits. For us, it's those small steps that really make a huge impact. That's why we're always trying to educate people, bring that reusable water bottle, bring that reusable Cutlery set, try and bring your reusable food container to avoid all the polystyrene clamshell packaging that you're going to get when you go out to eat and get a to go container. Anything that you can do is a step in the right direction, because we really need everybody operating, I'd say imperfectly, to have a massive impact.

It's just not realistic to think that everybody could be perfect. Like myself, I am so far from that, and it happens all the time where you go to a restaurant and they show up and they give you the straws and they give you the to-go wear, they give you plastic and you just have to do everything you can to try and do the right thing and cut down on that plastic.

Melissa Fifield:

Absolutely. What's next for 4ocean?

Alex Schultz:

So I think that the next phase for 4ocean is really scaling our partnership program, developing the products that we're making out of our ocean plastic that we've collected from the ocean and scaling our cleanups. That's the biggest thing for me. We are really staying focused on scaling our cleanup operations. We're getting more efficient across the board. We've started to target rivers and implement booms and barricade systems that are typically used in the oil spill industry, and we're corralling and collecting plastic before it has a chance to reach offshore. So we've implemented Boom systems in Bali, Indonesia, as well as Guatemala in the Rio Matua. So that's really a big focus for us and trying to scale our cleanups and hire as many captains and crews as possible.

Melissa Fifield:

Fantastic. Well, it's incredible work that you're doing out there and super inspiring. Thanks for joining us today.

Alex Schultz:

It has been fantastic speaking with you, Melissa. I believe that sustainability and ocean plastic and everything that's happening with the environment when it comes to plastic in the ocean, it all stems from conversations. People learning more about where that plastic is ending up and what they can be doing on a day-to-day basis, that will have a massive impact. The biggest thing for me is baby steps, progress not perfection, and do everything you can to cut down on plastics. But I really appreciate you hosting me here, and it's been a great conversation.

Melissa Fifield:

Absolutely, I agree. Thanks so much, Alex.

Michael Torrance:

Thanks for listening to Sustainability Leaders. This podcast is presented by BMO Financial Group to access all the resources we discussed in today's episode and to see our other podcasts, visit us at bmo.com/sustainabilityleaders. You can listen and subscribe free to our show on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast provider, and we'll greatly appreciate a rating and review and any feedback that you might have. Our show and resources are produced with support from BMO's marketing team and Puddle Creative. Until next time, I'm Michael Torrance. Have a great week.

Voiceover:

For BMO disclosures, please visit bmocm.com/podcast/disclaimer.

Melissa Fifield Chef, Institut pour le climat de BMO

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