Saturday, April 11, 2009

"Plastiki": The Plastic-Bottle Boat

I'd somehow (mistakenly) assumed that once my last blog was posted, I was done with plastic debris stories, but synchronicity struck again that very night--and of course, in my world, synchronicity always has the last word. So there I was in bed with the New Yorker, when I began, quite innocently, to read John Colapinto's essay, called "Message in a Bottle," having no idea what it was even about.

Well, it's all about this man, David de Rothschild, a thirty-year-old heir to the British banking fortune and an Arctic and Antarctic adventurer, who is currently building a sixty-foot catamaran out of thousands of discarded plastic water bottles. His intention is to sail across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Sydney, a journey of 11,000 miles, stopping en route to visit the Eastern Garbage Patch--the very same region of floating plastic trash I had just finished writing about in "The Albatross Necklace," halfway between Hawaii and the U.S. mainland. Estimated to be twice the size of Texas, this is where the slow, clockwise eddy known as the North Pacific Gyre keeps plastic debris rotating around indefinitely. The polymer particles, as they break down, are eaten by zooplankton and jellyfish and consumed by fish, eventually passing into the food chain of humans.

De Rothschild's goal, it seems, is the same one as Pam Longobardi's in "Drifters," and Cindy Waddington's in her necklaces: to make the point that humans are trashing the oceans. He also hopes to prove that by turning plastic waste into a reusable resource, it could revolutionize the shipbuilding industry. Perhaps one day we will all be riding around in bottle boats! Except for the masts, which are metal, everything on the catamaran is made from recycled plastic. The boat will also produce its own energy through solar panels, wind turbines, and stationary bikes to power small, battery-run motors that can maintain several laptop computers, a GPS, and a SAT phone. Everything on the boat will be composted, so no new pollution will be added to the ocean or the atmosphere. Everything is going to be recycled, including the boat itself, after the journey.

The bottles are being made brick-like by injecting dry-ice powder into them, which turns into carbon-dioxide gas and pressurizes them, making them rigid. None of these materials have yet been tested against serious ocean waves, much less cyclones or other weather hazards. But working with unknowns is part of the adventure, according to de Rothschild. "Ignorance is bliss in these situations," he says. His adventurous spirit emboldens and impels him. It's not unlike the risks undertaken by another adventurer, Thor Heyerdahl, in 1947, when he traveled for 101 days across 4,300 miles of ocean, from Peru to the Tuamotu Islands in the South Pacific, in a raft made of balsa logs lashed together with hemp ropes.

Heyerdahl called his boat the "Kon-Tiki," and in homage to Heyerdahl's journey, de Rothschild has named his bottle boat the "Plastiki." He plans on having Thor's grandaughter, and her cousin, Olav, join the small crew for part of the voyage, which he is hoping to launch some time this summer. Hopefully, too, they won't run into any pirates or they would be dead ducks. Meanwhile, de Rothschild can be often be found taking sailing lessons in San Francisco Bay. It's a good way to get your blood going, and it smells good too. I wish him well.

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