March 18, 2023

Impact Report

Barge Day 51 | 4ocean Guatemala

Join Tony, our Director of Cleanup Operations, as he takes you behind the scenes of Barge Day with our CEO and Co-Founder, Alex, and the Guatemala crew 

It’s 9:00 PM and I’m doing my best to go to sleep because we have to get up at 3:45 AM. The excitement of working with the Guatemala team again makes this pretty difficult. Working in those environments always gets me fired up, but I triple check that I have everything I need for the big day, stage it by the door, and turn off the lamp to get some sleep. 

Feb 5, 9:00pm night before. “Next time we see you, it will be game time”

3:45 AM comes quickly and I’m feeling good when I wake up. I’m pretty much ready to grab my gear when I hear something that sounds an awful lot like rain. My rain gear is at the absolute bottom of my fully packed bag, of course, so I open my door and peek out to see if I really need my gear and BOOP! The door shuts and taps me right on my backside. Now the door is locked with all of my gear—and my key—inside. 

Feb 6, 4:00am - Just locked myself out of my room

3:45 AM comes quickly and I’m feeling good when I wake up. I’m pretty much ready to grab my gear when I hear something that sounds an awful lot like rain. My rain gear is at the absolute bottom of my fully packed bag, of course, so I open my door and peek out to see if I really need my gear and BOOP! The door shuts and taps me right on my backside. Now the door is locked with all of my gear—and my key—inside. 

Feb 6, 4:00am - Just locked myself out of my room

With a little help from the hotel staff, I’m back in action. But it’s a good reminder: today is gonna be a challenge no matter how prepared we are.

Back in action!

We make our way to Quetzalito, a remote community at the end of the Motagua River, where we join our crew on a vessel that will take us about a mile away to the Las Vegas shoreline where massive amounts of plastic and trash accumulate.

The journey takes about 2 hours and the first thing I notice when we arrive is the sun is breaking through the clouds just over the horizon with rays of light spilling right over an absolute mountain of collected trash. It’s almost like the sun is trying to show its appreciation for what we’re doing.

Over the last three weeks, our Las Vegas crews and nearby teams have been hard at work cleaning this stretch of beach. All of the materials they’ve recovered are perfectly organized in super sacks. There are over 300 of them, all perfectly staged in this one central location in preparation for this day, what we like to call Barge Day.

The barge is a 50-foot vessel capable of carrying the massive amounts of plastic and trash that our crews recover all the way back to our main base in Puerto Barrios where it will be sorted and processed. And it’s going to anchor just offshore any minute now.

All 300 of these super sacks sit in a pool of water from the heavy rains that came the day before. The irony isn’t lost on me as these heavy rains are what transform the Rio Motagua into a superhighway that carries plastic waste from one side of the country to the other.

All of the plastic I’m looking at, now so neatly organized, was in the ocean just days before. It’s a humbling reminder of the crisis facing our oceans and the urgency of our mission; I’m filled with a surge of pride and affection for the crew and all of the hard work they’ve put in to get us to this point.

We find a section of shoreline where it’s safe to beach the pangas that we’ll use to transport these super sacks from the beach to the barge. It’s about 50 yards from where the super sacks are staged and there’s only one way to get the super sacks to the pangas: us!

Now, maybe you’re wondering why we can’t use machines or cranes to help us haul these sacks around. It would certainly make things easier, but there are a few reasons we don’t.

First, maintenance and storage in these remote locations is extremely difficult and costly. Plus, you gotta go through a few feet of surf to get from the shore to the pangas, and the salt water would quickly destroy anything we used, creating unnecessary expense, risk, and carbon footprint.

And last but perhaps most importantly, doing this work by hand means we’ll have a much smaller and less harmful impact on the environment and aquatic life. That human touch and care means a successful mission!

I start handing super sacks to the crew as they run up with nothing on my mind but “standing it up,” making the straps available to grab, and trying to knock off as many spiders as I can.

Yeah, spiders. Like hundreds of them. But the little beasties didn’t slow us down. (If anything slowed the process down, it was me!)

Now, I am no stranger to getting my hands dirty. That’s my bread and butter, after all. But the Guatemala crew does this all day every day. It was immediately obvious that they were stronger and faster. From how to grab the bags to how they lift them, they just have it figured out. It was incredible to witness.

Soaked from the rain, covered in sand and spiders, I was reminded how even the “simple” parts of our operations aren’t always easy. These cleanups require lots of hard physical labor, a little brute force, and the ability to get comfortable being uncomfortable.

Every super sack we moved was a testament to the crew’s dedication to our mission and willingness to do whatever it takes to protect the planet we love.

After about 50 or so super sacks, they start asking for lighter sacks. And I’m laughing like, sure, I wish they were lighter too. But it soon became clear why the crew was concerned about the weight of the sacks. They weren’t tired—it was time to load the barge.

Now, you can’t just toss super sacks onto the barge willy-nilly. You’ve gotta choose heavier stacks for the bottom of the pile to help balance the weight evenly across the surface of the vessel. Then you’ve gotta build upward, which means climbing onto the sacks at the bottom of the pile and working together to lift and drag the “lighter” sacks 10–20 feet up to the top of the pile. 

As soon as I caught on to the tempo and what needed to be done, we were back in action. I spent the rest of the time alternating between 20 or so sacks that were heavy, then searched for ones that were lighter. I gotta be honest though: near the end, they all seemed heavy to me.

But that wasn’t the case for everyone.

Graciela, Mara, and Olga seemed to get faster as the process went on while Santiago, Darwin, and Ivis seemed to get stronger. You could tell they were in the zone, experts at what they do. This was their 51st barge run, after all, so just business as usual for them.

It took a few hours of continuous motion for all of the super sacks to make their way from the beach to the barge, and at that point, there was only one way to cool down and celebrate. Jumping off the barge, of course!

The loaded barge has a 7-hour journey back to Puerto Barrios that will take it around the point of Punta Manabique, so we take advantage of the 5-hour difference and enjoy a well-deserved lunch of chicken, rice, and beans in Quetzalito with the team.

It’s a chance to share thanks, exchange high fives, wonder aloud how much weight we just moved by hand, and relish in the feeling of closeness and shared purpose that comes after such hard physical labor.

After our meal, we make the 2 hour drive back to Puerto Barrios to catch up with the crew and help with vessel maintenance while we wait for the barge to arrive.

Of course, Guatemala Content Correspondent Clynton couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take some crew portraits in the warm afternoon light!

When the barge arrived at sunset, we created an assembly line of sorts and everyone worked together like a well oiled machine. Dave was pulling sacks off of the barge like an animal, crew members were staging them near the scale, and we had a dedicated crew at the weigh station documenting everything.

Super sack after super sack was weighed, photographed, and logged. After three straight hours, we were down to the last few sacks—and, of course, it started raining.

It was like coming full circle, from the rains that washed all of this plastic out of the Rio Motagua, to the sun that shone down on the super sacks of plastic our crews collected, and back to the rain that fell like a blessing, rinsing us off and cooling us down now that our work was done. Or almost done.

Reinvigorated by the rain, the crew trooped into the Puerto Barrios office where we added up the weight of all 308 super sacks and came up with an unofficial count that put us just over 20,000 pounds.

A slow and methodical recount later that night would confirm our number, which was slightly higher as we accidentally skipped over a super sack on our initial count. After 19 hours of back-breaking work, Barge Run 51 was officially in the books with 309 super sacks weighing in at a total of 20,234 pounds.

I should’ve been exhausted, but I felt like I was on top of the world.

The tangible impact of knowing that I had a hand in pulling 20,000 pounds of debris out of the ocean felt good. Like really good. This experience was life changing for me. Something I can’t unsee or unlearn. I will carry it with me forever.

The deep appreciation for everything it took to accomplish this brought me to some deep places emotionally and mentally—humility, purpose, pride, a connection to something bigger than myself. And then I looked outside myself and was just completely overtaken by the support of those around me.

And then, I thought about something that made me just plain lose it. Literal tears of joy comparable to someone who just lifted a Super Bowl Trophy above their head. Laying in bed, dead tired after a 19-hour day, I thought of you. Yes, you. Because you had a hand in pulling that 20,000 pounds too!

You see, none of this happens without your support. So this day wasn’t just a huge win for the Guatemala crew, it was a win for us all. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are rallying WITH us, living this mission, sharing our stoke, and supporting our cause every single day. It’s incredible to think about.

And you know what's crazy? While this Barge Day was epic in every conceivable way, it’s just a drop in the bucket of what we have accomplished together!

The Guatemala crew has completed 60 barge runs totaling 1,281,798 pounds of trash. That’s over a million pounds of trash that will never see the ocean again (unless it’s in a bracelet on your wrist!)

And then you look at our TrashTracker and realize that that’s just a small portion of the 30 million pounds we are so close to reaching. I’m on standby and our teams are ready. We just need one last thing to get to that 30 million pound milestone, and it’s something we have had every step of this amazing journey: You.

Tony Ernst 

Director of Cleanup Operations

Clean Ocean Warrior  + 
Sr. Video Producer

Born and raised in South Florida, the water is always where Tony feels most at home. An avid scuba diver and conservationist, he is always looking for ways to be impactful. Working daily with our global cleanups teams ensures he puts his passion to good use and that 4ocean’s cleanup operations are running smoothly, efficiently, and keeping the clean ocean movement alive! 


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