David de Rothschild is an adventurer in the British tradition of great adventurers. Just 33 this year, he’s the youngest Britain and one of only 42 people to reach both the North and South Poles. He’s one of only 14 people to make it all the way across Antarctica. A rare combination of passion, ability and means – he’s the youngest heir to the Rothschild banking fortune – his adventures have taken him from the Greenland ice cap to the rain forests of Ecuador.
The latter was to document the environmental impact of oil drilling, and that’s where de Rothschild is distinguishing himself from his predecessors. His exploits have become less about exploration and more about proclamation. His messages are about critical environmental issues. His organization, Adventure Ecology, takes on field missions to raise awareness of environmental topics and also to help develop and then showcase solutions to problems. His intended audience is “a youth-based community of change makers” to help promote “smart thinking” for a better “Planet 2.0.” Leave it to an adventurer nurtured in the internet age to try and install an update on the global consciousness about how people treat the planet.
On March 23, 2010, de Rothschild set out on a trans-ocean voyage from San Francisco to Sydney to focus the world’s attention on the explosive growth of plastic waste accumulating in the oceans. To crank up the volume for their expedition, the Adventure Ecology team decided to forego the use of any normal sailing craft and, instead, built their own out of plastic trash, including thousands of reclaimed plastic bottles. The “Plastiki” is a catamaran 60-feet long and 20-feet wide. Its basic structure is formed from a recycled plastic material called srPET, the mast is a reclaimed aluminum irrigation pipe, the sail is hand-made from recycled PET cloth and 12,500 plastic bottles are laced into the catamaran’s hull and provide 68% of the vessel’s buoyancy.
The vessel is the perfect expression of one of the group’s core philosophies; that waste as we know it is not seen in nature and is therefore a design flaw. Recycling and re-using are critical to long-term sustainability of the planet. Of course, recycling and re-use comes with its own challenges. The Plastiki was four years in development and helped refine and pioneer a number of building techniques for recycled plastic. It even used organic glue made from cashew nuts and sugar cane. The finished vessel completed its 8,000 mile trek without major incident, a testament to the preparations of the design team and the skill of the crew. If it sounds insane to cross the Pacific Ocean on a high-tech raft of plastic bottles, then the Plastiki was just living up to its namesake.
David de Rothschild’s inspiration for the epic voyage was two-fold. First, the issue of plastic trash and its impact on the oceans was driven home to him by a 2006 UNEP report named “Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas.” The idea of raising awareness by sailing across the Pacific on a questionable craft came from Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 expedition, the Kon-Tiki. That adventure sought to demonstrate that Polynesian islands were settled by South American migration across the Pacific. Heyerdahl’s raft was made from nine Balsa logs, had a square sail, and traveled downwind 4,300 miles from Peru to the Tuamoto Islands, successfully proving the feasibility of such a trek by ancient peoples. The craft was so bare the crew of five had to lash themselves to the deck at night so as not to be washed overboard.
The crew of the Plastiki – which included Heyerdahl’s grandson, Olav, as an expedition diver – had a few more creature comforts than their predecessors. There was a cabin with proper bunks, modern electronics for navigation, and even a hydroponic garden for a few fresh veggies. What they didn’t have was an abundance of fish, something the Kon-Tiki voyage had daily and used as a primary source of food and hydration. Whether the apparent lack of marine life around the Plastiki is a significant statement about the conditions of the oceans is perhaps up for discussion, but one thing the Plastiki crew did have was trash. Nine hundred miles from land the crew noted in a single day, the presence of a garden tray, two jerry cans, multiple buoys, and a large, white PVC tray floating by on the waves. Throughout the trip there was a regular trail of plastic bags, bottles, and Styrofoam containers. At times, when swimming or inspecting the hull, the crew found “mermaid’s tears,” or millions of bits of plastic degraded by sunlight and saltwater awash beneath the surface.
Four months after sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge, the Plastiki made a safe arrival in Sydney on July 26th. The four legs of its voyage included stops in Kiribati, Western Samoa, and New Caledonia. Each was chance for re-supply and rest, but also provided another chance to preach the Plastiki message. On Christmas Island, in Kribati, the crew was invited to visit with 1,000 high school students to talk about recycling. It’s just the sort of youth-inspiring opportunity de Rothschild was after, and combined with prolific media coverage of the entire voyage – 90 interviews conducted from the vessel, more than 300 print articles, 200 radio and TV broadcasts, and, of course, a spot on Oprah – the Plastiki has generated serious buzz. At last count there were more than 800,000 internet search terms relating to Plastiki and 52,200 related images on Google. Perhaps it’s the first step in a new world attitude. Call it “Plastic 2.0.”
Daryl Carson is the Managing Editor of Guy Harvey Magazine and a freelance writer with works published in a variety of national marine & outdoor magazines. A Florida native, he recently returned to the Gulf of Mexico area via Alabama from too long of a stay in Los Angeles. Along with renewing his southern roots, he’s happy that frequent excursions to the waters of the ‘Redneck Riviera’ is only moments away – the source of his passion for all things marine.