Guatemala’s biofences are cleaning up Latin American rivers. And it’s thanks to a Facebook video

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At first glance, the primitive presence sitting low in the water looks like a crocodile.

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Look again and it’s just a mesh of plastic bottles and netting. What’s going on here?

In May, the Forum produced a video on Guatemala’s ‘biofences’ -- plastic bottles meshed together to form barriers across rivers to trap plastic and other waste.

The technology is smart, simple and cheap -- using plastic to trap plastic. And given that the waste is recycled -- a valuable new source of jobs.

The idea certainly resonated with the Facebook audience as the video went viral with 20 million views including the Spanish version.

Why so shareable?

The Forum produces more than a thousand Facebook videos a year and less than 10% get to more than a million views.

It’s hard to explain why some go viral and others don’t. In this case it was probably down to four factors we’ve found have a powerful effect on sharing:

1. An intriguing opening shot that gets fast-scrolling users to pause and look again

2. A strong opening caption that explains why it’s worth letting the video play on

3. A simple, succinct script that holds the viewer until the end

4. Some good news worth sharing for those who want to accentuate the positive

An outsized impact

Immediately after the video was published, Guatemalan Environment Minister Alfonso Alonzo started getting questions from officials in neighbouring countries. They wanted to know how to replicate the success of the country's biofences.

Inspired by the video, Honduras and Dominican Republic have already introduced their own versions. Plans for Panama, El Salvador and Argentina are underway. And there’s interest from beyond the region -- Malaysia and Somalia are also working on the idea.

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Many projects have been financed by USAID and the Guatemalans have been generous both in sharing their expertise and in recognising the influence of the video, which was highlighted at September’s UN General Assembly in New York.

The limits of social video

There’s only so much you can say in a 60-second video. It’s not possible to cover the nuances of complex stories -- the format really only works for simple ideas that are easy to illustrate.

That’s both a frustration and a challenge. Reducing stories to a script of perhaps just 120-150 words means every caption has to count and language kept as tight as possible.

We aim to deepen the experience by linking back from video posts to detailed blog posts that cover more ground -- in this case a comprehensive infographic on plastics from one of our content partners.

Guatemala found a simple solution to a real-world problem, and the Forum is proud to have played a role in sharing their work. And we’re keen to hear of other smart ways to improve the state of the world: you can join our Facebook group, Tech We Need, to share your thoughts on inspiring inventions.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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