Social enterprise OceanHero has a digital platform inviting people from around the globe to help fund work to clean up or stop ocean plastic simply by surfing the internet. At the same time, users learn about plastic’s impact on oceans and marine ecosystems and about projects to shield these natural resources from plastic litter.
How it works is users add OceanHero to their browser, which becomes their start page, enabling them to access multiple features. Among them are a search bar and engine to find information about marine life, how plastic makes its way into the ocean, and related topics. They get trivia questions; see colorful, changing ocean scape images; and watch videos telling stories like those of marine protected areas, a sea turtle conservation farm, and a bank for corals.
The chance to help crack down on ocean plastics comes in through gaming. Users do “digital shell collecting,” earning shells when they open tabs, search, or answer ocean trivia questions. Berlin-based OceanHero pays to recover one plastic bottle for every hundred of these electronic sea treasures collected.
The money, generated when users click on links to ads, benefits three organizations: Plastic Bank, Waste Free Ocean, and Trash-Waste- Solutions. Trash-Waste-Solutions develops zero waste plans and is building houses out of plastic bricks. Waste Free Oceans organizes ocean cleanups and made a floatation device that collects plastic in harbors and river mouths. And Plastic Bank builds recycling networks and collection hubs near coasts and rivers in remote areas with lacking waste management.
“After doing a lot of research into organizations out there we felt these three best attack ocean plastic,” says Marvin Burman, OceanHero cofounder, who was pulled to this cause by both what he did in his personal life and at work.
“I was a diver and passionate about the ocean and learned as I traveled to remote places about plastic pollution. I also worked for a software company selling solutions to companies like Google and thought I could use my tech skills and the internet to teach about plastic pollution while generating funds,” he says.
The platform has caught on fast in the couple of years since its launch, with about 200,000 users a month. A recent YouTube video showcasing what OceanHero does and how the search engine works has so far fielded 38 million views. Typically, users are about 18 to 30 years old. They want to help the ocean and have an enjoyable experience, Burman says.
He made a realization early on as he tried to figure out how to have meaningful impact: simply finding ways to clean up trash was not enough. He had to help people understand what has to change and why.
“Knowing the right message to send users was tough in the beginning. We had to first understand the root causes of plastic pollution, which are diverse and complex. So, we reached out to experts to learn more,” Burman says.
Among the enterprise’s go-to’s were Mott MacDonald, consultants in varied niches, including around plastics; and Joe Ruxton who produced an ocean plastic pollution documentary. Burman gained more knowledge and found one of its first partners to fund at the World Ocean Summit.
With his first hire, a chief technology officer, he built a small prototype and created partnerships with companies like Microsoft who returns to users text-based search engine results and provides OceanHero access to its network of advertisers.
Funding recipient Trash-Waste-Solutions is a team of mainly divers working to create a zero-waste island concept. The Switzerland-based nongovernment organization (NGO) hopes to duplicate it in multiple regions but for now is focused on Manado on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia where it is building a house from plastic bricks as part of its zero-waste pilot. It’s leveraging Precious Plastic, an open-source hardware plastic recycling technology.
“We chose Precious because we want to build a concept that can work for locals and that is easy to operate rather than have a big plant with big machines requiring a high skill level,” says Patricia Stoeckli, co-founder of Trash-Waste-Solutions.
“Our goal is to help people help themselves, and to do that at a scale that they have capacity and resources for.”
Trash-Waste-Solutions found OceanHero in October 2021.
“We exchanged ideas and quickly came to the conclusion we wanted to work together. We were fascinated with the concept of an internet browser [to raise awareness of, and funds to address, ocean plastic], and as we are an NGO, we need partners to help us finance our work,” Stoeckli says.
Among ways OceanHero helped was by funding the plastic recycling machine, as well as t-shirts, masks, and hats for workers with its and Trash-Waste-Solutions’ logo. The enterprise helped finance a photographer and videographer to produce materials for both partners’ websites and to show OceanHero users what happens with the donations.
“After a year of working with them we can say it’s working out well for us. We installed the machine in Manado and could make the first plastic bricks with their support. [Besides achieving this and expanding marketing efforts] we organized four beach cleanups on the island of Siladin. OceanHero will continue to support us with beach cleanups and plans to support us with environmental education material,” Stoeckli says.
OceanHero funding recipient Plastic Bank builds recycling ecosystems in coastal communities and reprocesses materials, returning them to the global manufacturing supply chain. Local collectors, who are regular citizens, receive bonuses for the materials they collect, which helps them pay for basic family necessities.
“In collaboration with Plastic Bank, OceanHero has prevented over 80 tons of plastic from entering the ocean to date; that’s equivalent to over 4 million plastic bottles. With OceanHero’s continued support, not only have we been able to stop ocean plastic, we have also been able to provide families access to groceries, cooking fuel, school tuition, and health insurance. We look forward to growing this impact in the years to come,” says David Katz, founder and CEO of Plastic Bank.
Collectively, OceanHero, its partners and users have helped reclaim 24 million ocean-bound plastic bottles.