Adventures of the 'Plastiki'

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We talk a lot about recycling products – turning them into new things, melting and chipping them down to be used again in some other form than their original design. But this takes a great deal of energy and resources, even though some products are perfectly usable to begin with. Don’t get us wrong, we love recycling. But looking outside of the bin is cool too.

David de Rothschild's "Plastiki" is scheduled to set sail this summer. Photo: Earthfirst.com

David de Rothschild’s “Plastiki” is scheduled to set sail this summer. Photo: Earthfirst.com

David de Rothschild, heir to one of the most famous fortunes in banking, is taking the same perspective on plastic waste and setting an example for ecologically minded sea-farers: He’s building a 60-foot, rudderless catamaran out of used two-liter plastic bottles, even though he gets “seasick in the bathtub.”

The recycled (and 100 percent recyclable) vessel has been dubbed the Plastiki, after the well-known Kon-Tiki, the raft Thor Heyerdahl used in his 1947 Pacific crossing.

Named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and founder of Adventure Ecology, an organization that hosts expeditions to environmentally sensitive areas to raise awareness for schoolchildren, de Rothschild will set out on a 11,000-mile voyage from San Francisco to Sydney late this summer – barring any additional problems and delays, of which there have been many so far.

Considering Waste

In a National Geographic blog post, de Rothschild notes that he finds our perception of the concept of waste “interesting,” particularly considering the fact that “the way it’s viewed and disposed of tends to sit differently within Western culture than other parts of the world. Outside of the West, there is almost an inherent recycling culture and sense of responsibility to reuse because waste is fundamentally a resource, either for financial gain or simply because the materials are reusable.”

With this notion in mind, the Plastiki, even though it will be an entirely sea-worthy ship, will be completely recyclable once the voyage is complete.

“We’ve assembled the whole thing without glues or resins, so when the trip is over in June, we’ll be able to recycle the entire boat,” said de Rothschild in an interview with PopSci.com.

The catamaran could use up to 20,000 plastic bottles, brought in from local recycling centers near where the boat is being built in San Francisco – a city which de Rothschild calls “very progressive.”

According to Thay Walker in a blog post for National Geographic, “The project sometimes suffers from a shortage of plastic bottles, which will compose the catamaran’s twin hulls. ‘We’re waiting for another shipment,’ says de Rothschild. ‘We’re having a lot of problems with that.'”

In order to maintain a clean look, only clear bottles are selected for the boat. If a bottle is chosen, its label is peeled, trash and liquids are removed, the bottle is washed and a scoop of dry ice is poured inside. The dry ice sublimates (melts), releasing carbon dioxide gas that expands the bottle back into its original shape, as most are crushed or damaged upon arrival.

“A typical car tire requires around 36 pounds per square inch of pressure for proper inflation,” writes Walker. “The pressure inside this bottle is around 55 pounds per square inch. Sometimes the bottles explode, but the team has done strength tests by running them over with a car. It’s all very scientific.”

On the High Seas

Beyond the challenge of building a bottle boat, de Rothschild is making his four-month trip into a voyage for oceanic research and awareness. At the berths along the route,  scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who will publish a paper on their findings at the end of the trip, will study topics like ocean acidification, coral bleaching and marine debris.

Among his destinations, de Rothschild is looking to sail to the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island-like mass of waste that’s continuously growing (it’s already more than twice the size of Texas)  as ocean currents deposit more plastic debris.

“The reality is that this area of ocean is saturated with tiny fragments of plastic suspended mainly below the surface of the water, forming a sort of plastic soup,” writes de Rothschild. “When we finally get there, we’re not really expecting to see anything astonishingly different on the surface of the water. We will see more of the effects of the plastics when we take samples of the water and measure the fragments of suspended plastic, like shaking a snow globe.”

Plastic trash in the ocean is a serious concern. According to National Geographic, “Of the 200 billion pounds of plastic produced each year, researchers estimate that 10 percent ends up in the ocean, and a 2006 United Nations report calculated that each square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic.”

When it comes to plastic, de Rothschild advocates reassessing how we use, dispose, and reuse it.

“It comes down to the old cliché of stopping to think before you buy,” he says. “Can you reuse the bottle that contained the water or soda you drank earlier? […] We can all minimize our impact if we fundamentally change the way in which we consume. The biggest change we can make is to rethink our buying habits and create more demand for positive change.”

Noting that many hazards await the Plastiki on it’s voyage, de Rothschild feels that no matter how far he makes it, the trip will  “make a huge impact by raising awareness about plastics in the ocean and using waste as a resource.”

Bon Voyage!

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