A Tale of a Plastic Ship A Tale of a Plastic Ship
The Planet

A Tale of a Plastic Ship

by Patrick James

May 30, 2009

David de Rothschild will soon set sail on the Plastiki, a boat constructed out of re-purposed plastic bottles.

In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five men traveled across the Pacific Ocean to Peru on craft comprised of natural materials modeled after ancient Inca rafts. Using that as inspiration, David de Rothschild, the banking scion and the founder of Adventure Ecology, is embarking on The Plastiki Expedition, and will soon set sail on another curious vessel: one comprise almost entirely of re-purposed plastic bottles. The journey will take de Rothschild and his crew from San Fransisco to Australia's Sydney Harbor, passing through the North Pacific Garbage Patch. It's part of an effort to raise awareness not only about the problems of plastic waste in our oceans (using the single-use plastic water bottle as the focal point), but also to showcase the potential for plastic as a versatile, reusable material, one that doesn't need to be recycled but that transforms what we currently think of as waste into resources. We phoned de Rothschild last week, as the Plastiki was nearing its assembly stage, to learn a bit more about the inspired voyage.GOOD: We've been following your efforts to build this vessel entirely out of plastic water bottles, and we hear you're pretty close to casting off. How far along in the process are you? DAVID DE ROTHSCHILD: We're probably 100 percent through the process in terms of understanding the materials in the engineering stage and now we are in the assembly stage, which is pretty cool.G: What challenges have you come up against?DDR: I think it's always dealing with the unknown. That's why this is such an adventure. You know, it's about understanding the material, which has to do with the message of understanding plastic.G: And what do you want people to understand about plastic? DDR: I hope people stop regarding it as a throw-away item, and we can help and put plastic into a light where it has more value. If it's still perceived as a throw-away item, we'll be stuck in the same position. To back up, we're kind of in the hundredth year of using it, which is quite interesting to think about. It was 1899 that Leo Hendrik Baekland was paid 1 million dollars by Kodak for a new photographic paper he created, which allowed photographers to go inside and use artificial light instead of sunlight to develop their film. He used that million dollars to develop a plastic called Bakelite, which he revealed to the world in 1909. Fast forward to 2009, we're producing 200 million tons of plastic a year, much of which is single-use, throw-away plastic.
G: It's kind of an ungodly amount.DDR: It is, and I think the knee-jerk reaction to plastic is that it's the enemy. But we're trying to both beat waste and showcase waste as a resource to give it a new value. And we're using the plastic water bottle, which is the pinup for throw-away plastic. To use that, we need to understand the material, and that's what this program has been about.G: What have you learned about the materials?DDR: It's a lot more versatile than we originally thought, and also a lot stronger. By our calculations, it's about half the weight of fiber glass and about three quarters the strength, which was surprising. We did tests yesterday to try bonding the materials together, and what we're learning isn't just about using repurposed or cradle-to-cradle plastic in the boating industry; it's something that we can move into kayaks and snowboards and all sorts of other products.G: There's something interesting about sailing on repurposed plastic, given that you're going to pass through the Pacific Garbage Patch-which is comprised of so much plastic that has just turned into waste. What do you expect to see there?DDR: Well, there's a tendency to think of it as a real destination, but for me, it's slightly more ominous that it's not a big floating island, that it's actually more subsurface, that our oceans are just sort of trashed. There's a six-to-one ratio of plastic to plankton in certain areas like the gyres-there's one off the coast of Japan, Antaractica, South Africa, and so on. Anywhere in our oceans where there's a naturally forming gyre, you see a high concentration of plastics. There's roughly 100 million tons of plastic in our oceans, which is shocking. The important point to convey is that it's one body of water with huge concentrations of plastic across the entire oceans, not just in one area. It gets worse that chemicals flowing into our oceans are attracted to and absorbed by the plastic, which is ingested by the filter-feeders, the little guys who make it back into the food supply and back into you and me. When you start to see mothers not being able to breast-feed their children because of flame retardants in their breast milk, that's a huge health issue. The gyre is not just about the marine mammals, it's about us. And it's tough to connect those things and communicate that we're ultimately responsible and that we should care.G: But you don't just want people to disavow plastic altogether, you just want it to be used differently.DDR: From the moment you're born, the first thing that's put on your wrist is a plastic bracelet, followed by a plastic bottle in your mouth. Throughout our entire lives we're touching and feeling plastic in different forms and it would be impossible to ban plastics altogether, but what we can do is think about it in a smarter way. Our ability to understand the material-how we use and dispose of it is at fault. If we can take that energy that we use to vilify it to understand it, then we might be in a smarter position.The Plastiki Expedition is made possible the SMART collective, of which Adventure Ecology is one part. SMART focuses on Science, Marketing, Art and design, Research, and Technology, and is currently challenging people to find new ways to use waste materials as resources. Learn how you can compete, and possibly get an idea funded, here.Photos by Luca Babini. Rendering of the vessel by Peter Rubin.
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A Tale of a Plastic Ship