A river of plastic

Words by Alex Schulze
Photographs courtesy of 4Ocean

I’ve spent most of my life out on the water.

I grew up on a small island on the West coast of Florida. My first job was working as a mate on a charter vessel. After years of hard work and devotion, I became a licensed Captain. Throughout the years, I became more and more connected to the water.

I often heard people discussing ocean pollution but it was always in short soundbites such as, “Did you know that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050,” or, “I heard there’s a patch of garbage the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean.” It wasn’t until taking a surf trip to Bali with my good friend and 4ocean co-founder Andrew Cooper that I witnessed first-hand, just how bad the plastic pollution crisis really is.

The waste management infrastructure in the United States is pretty good compared to most, so plastic has been “out of sight, out of mind” for most people. In certain countries, the economics of a recycling infrastructure doesn’t make financial sense, so they are left to dispose of the plastic themselves. Unfortunately, that opens the door to things like burning the plastic in an open fire or tossing it into rivers where it is carried offshore. When we witnessed the massive amounts of plastic washing up on Kuta Beach in Bali, we realised how big of a problem this actually was. Not just in Bali, but around the world. This was the beginning of 4ocean. Today, we have collected millions of pounds of waste from the waters of Bali, Haiti, Florida and beyond, we’re just scratching the surface of this global crisis.

In 2019, Andrew and I were on a scouting trip to Central America when we realised that Guatemala should be our next cleanup operation expansion. Guatemala is a beautiful country that has incredible things to offer. Unfortunately, when you have a large population centre like Guatemala City stationed right off of a major waterway like the Rio Motagua, there tends to be waste management conflicts that arise.

Many people don’t realise that rivers are one of the top sources of ocean plastic pollution and carry extreme amounts of plastic into the ocean every year. A common misconception is that a majority of ocean plastic comes from cruise ships or boaters who are simply dumping their trash into the ocean. This is not the case. It is coming from land-based sources that ends up in rivers due to weather or purposeful dumping. It is believed that the Rio Motagua has contributed to a large amount of ocean plastic that has been carried into the Atlantic where it is either floating in the current, sinking to the ocean floor, or being pushed back up onto the coastlines.

4ocean Guatemala river mouth
4ocean Guatemala motagua river

During our visit, we were given a tour by the local government where they showed us the high impact areas of plastic pollution along the coastlines. It was shocking. I saw massive amounts of plastic washed up onshore, tangled in the mangroves, and littering the surrounding areas. The plastic piles extended down the coastline for miles and miles as far as the eye could see. It was at this point that we knew an operation in Guatemala was the way to go. While our original thought was to create a location on the coast of Honduras, we knew it would make more sense to set up our operation at the mouth of the Rio Motagua where plastic pollution was emptying into the ocean. We quickly arranged for a follow up trip to meet with Guatemala decision makers.

During our follow up trip to Guatemala, we met with the local government, community members, and other influential individuals that were already leading the fight against this plastic pollution issue. They were all incredibly helpful and excited that we were discussing a new clean-up location in the area.

We went to a small town located on the east side of the Rio Motagua and spoke with a large group of locals where we learned about their experience with the plastic pollution problem. We asked if we could pay anyone to help us clean up the local coastline for the day and the response was unbelievable. We had more than 25 people show up with four skiffs in a matter of minutes ready to clean. Not long after that, the local government showed up with numerous boats and individuals to help.

It was amazing to look down the shoreline and see everyone working together and filling our large blue bags with plastic from the coastline. Their work ethic was outstanding, and you could tell they really wanted to make a difference and restore the area back to what it once was. We worked from sunrise to sunset and removed more than 20,000 pounds of plastic from the coastline in just one day.

While there have certainly been complications in the past, the country as a whole has been actively working towards reversing these negative impacts and wants to see significant change. One of the ways this is being done is through innovative containment systems being placed in their rivers. They are also working to set up the necessary collection programs with a goal of recycling the plastic they take in. These are just a few of the reasons that we at 4ocean have been so excited to open up our new operation base in Guatemala and work with the local governments and communities to combat the plastic issue in their area.

The towns and communities along the coastlines are seeing a substantial impact from plastic pollution. I spoke with multiple residents and asked them about the history of the Rio Motagua. They mentioned how there never used to be any plastic that would come down the river. Most consumable items used to be made using reusable glass or compostable materials. When plastic products were introduced to Central America, the pollution quickly followed. Plastic pollution is affecting their tourism industry, disrupting their ability to fish and provide for their families, and harming wildlife in the surrounding areas. Many locals have turned to collecting the plastic themselves and either burying it or burning it on an open fire pit. The local communities will continue to face health issues, loss of tourism and the ability to make a living from jobs like fishing if nothing is done about the flow of plastic into their waters.

4ocean Guatemala river clean up
4ocean Guatemala plastic pollution
4ocean Guatemala ocean plastic

Our strategy for cleaning in Guatemala will begin with testing our containment boom systems and collecting trash directly from the heavily polluted coastlines. Containment boom systems are designed to stop and collect floating debris that will help stop plastic in the Rio Motagua before it has a chance to reach the ocean. The locals in Guatemala have been using their own system over the past few months and we are excited to partner to see what improvement opportunities exist. In addition to boom systems, we will continue to implement our standard procedures for clean-ups, which includes having boots on the ground to remove plastic from the coastlines as well as using nets to scoop floating debris from offshore.

Our highest priority is to recycle everything that can be recycled. All of the plastic that is collected will be brought back to our facility. It is then sorted by type, colour, and condition, and then compressed into small bales for storage. Our goal is to make 4ocean products out of the plastic that is collected that can drive awareness around the ocean plastic crisis, eliminate single-use plastic products, and continue to keep our operation funded.

Anything that is too contaminated to be recycled will be disposed of properly at the appropriate facility. This can include converting the waste to energy through thermal treatment, aggregate to be used in concrete, or landfilling as a last resort. Our goal is to use the most sustainable method of disposal, but in certain situations, it is not economically feasible to recycle certain types of waste.

Our aim is to work with the local communities and members of the government to reverse the negative impacts that plastic pollution. By providing full-time jobs to local community members and restoring the beaches and waterways back to their original beauty, we hope to generate significant economic impact through tourism and wages. In addition, we’d like to work with the local community to develop sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic products in general.

One myth that I am keen to debunk through this work is that we as consumers do not individually have the ability to help end the ocean plastic crisis. It is our daily choices that drive the issue forward, and it is up to us to create change. Corporations produce plastic items for brands, and brands produce these items for consumers. We as consumers have the ability to create the demand for sustainable options that do not include single-use plastics. By working together and voting with our money, we have the ability to end the ocean plastic crisis, forever.

In order to end the ocean plastic crisis, we need to see a massive change all across the board. We need to stop producing single use plastics that are designed to be used for a few minutes and then tossed away. We have to find more sustainable solutions and embrace the refuse, reuse, and recycle lifestyle. Stronger waste management infrastructures need to be implemented all across the world and provide solutions for the plastic that is being produced. We need to commoditise the plastic that is currently out in the world and create the demand for this material so that it can be cleaned up. It will take cooperation and teamwork from the government, non-profits, businesses and the consumers themselves to make this happen.

Find out more about 4ocean’s Project Guatemala:

Photographs courtesy of 4Ocean