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Ship in a Bottle Ship in a Bottle

Ship in a Bottle

August 11, 2009

Don't treat it like trash, and plastic becomes a lot more interesting.

 In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and a crew of five men crossed the Pacific Ocean on the Kon-Tiki, a craft comprised of natural materials and modeled after ancient Incan rafts. This summer, David de Rothschild, the banking scion and the founder of Adventure Ecology, is embarking on The Plastiki Expedition, for which he's setting sail on a vessel comprised almost entirely of repurposed plastic bottles. The journey will take him and his crew from San Francisco to Australia's Sydney Harbor, passing through the North Pacific Gyre, in part, to raise awareness about our reckless consumption of plastic."We're producing two hundred million tons of plastic a year, much of which is single-use, throw-away," says de Rothschild. "There's roughly 100 million tons of plastic in our oceans. The important point to convey is that it's huge concentrations of plastic across our entire oceans, not just in one area."He and his team of engineers have spent countless hours attempting to transform thousands of water bottles into a seaworthy vessel. It's his hope that doing so will give the material new value.A successful Plastiki journey would speak to the resiliency of a material that should be treated as precious, not simply problematic: "If we can take that energy that we use to vilify it to understand it, then we might be in a smarter position. 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," he explains. "It's a lot more versatile than we originally thought, and also a lot stronger."Plastic bottles might seem flimsy, but the boat builders found that plastic is nearly three quarters the strength of fiberglass, even though it weighs half as much. A new perspective on plastic could have repercussions far beyond the Plastiki trip. Says de Rothschild: "What we're learning isn't just about using repurposed or cradle-to-cradle plastic in the boating industry."Rendering by Peter Rubin. An earlier version of this story appeared online here. This is the version that ran in the magazine.

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