Sailing on the ocean’s behalf

British banking heir David de Rothschild plans a remarkable journey in a recycled plastic boat to highlight the huge “garbage patch” caught up in swirling Pacific currents. Robin McKie reports.

An heir to one of the world’s greatest fortunes, David de Rothschild, plans to set sail across the Pacific this summer — in a boat, the Plastiki, made from plastic bottles and recycled waste. The aim of this extraordinary venture is simple: to focus attention on one of the world’s strangest and most unpleasant environmental phenomena: the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a rubbish-covered region of ocean several hundred kilometres in diameter.

The patch, north-west of Hawaii, was discovered in 1999 by researchers who found that its waters contained tens of thousands of pieces of plastic per square kilometre, the remains of rubbish caught in the region’s circulating ocean currents. This pollution is now devastating populations of seabirds and fish that live in the region.

During his trip, which is being sponsored by the International Watch Company (IWC) and Hewlett-Packard, de Rothschild will collect water samples and post blogs, photographs and video clips of the area in an attempt to publicise the perils posed by plastic pollution.

To further highlight the ocean’s plastic-pollution problems, the 30-year-old environmental crusader has designed a special catamaran with a hull made of frames filled with 12,000 plastic bottles. The cabin and bulkheads of Plastiki also have been constructed out of a special recycled material called srPET [self-reinforcing polyethylene terephthalate], made of webs of plastic.

“The plastic water bottle epitomises everything about this throwaway, disposable society,” said de Rothschild, who trained to be an equestrian show-jumper in England and who has trekked to both the north and south poles. However, he added that he was not aiming to demonise plastic, but was trying to highlight its alternative uses, as well as focusing global attention on the dangers posed to the ecology in regions such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The Plastiki — its name inspired by the balsa raft Kon-Tiki that was built and sailed across the Pacific in 1947 by the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl — is now undergoing trials in San Francisco Bay. “The project has gone through several materials, exploring everything from bamboo to plywood, even playing around with the idea of sewing all the bottles together in one giant sock,” said de Rothschild. As a result, the 20-metre catamaran has cost several million US dollars to construct and has taken three years to reach its current design.

When it is ready, it will carry de Rothschild and a crew of six on a 17,000-kilometre journey from San Francisco to Hawaii, Midway Island, Bikini Atoll, Vanuatu and, finally, Sydney. There will be no accompanying craft, but the Plastiki will be met by a support team at each landfall.

The destinations for the craft’s great voyage have been selected to highlight a variety of environmental threats, including overfishing and climate change. However, the most important part of Plastiki’s route will be its voyage round the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, where it will focus global awareness on the issue of marine debris and pollution.

The patch was discovered 10 years ago by the oceanographer Charles Moore when he was sailing off Hawaii. “I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic,” Moore later recalled. Among the items he spotted were plastic coat hangers, an inflated volleyball, a truck tyre and dozens of plastic fishing floats.

“In the week it took to cross, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.” Indeed, the term “patch” does not begin to convey the nature of the phenomenon, Moore added. A “plastic soup” has been created, he said, one that has spread over an area that is now bigger than American state of Texas (about 700,000 square kilometres).

The plastic — most of it swept from coastal cities in Asia and California — is trapped indefinitely in the region by the North Pacific Gyre, a vortex of currents that circulate clockwise around the ocean. Scientists estimate that there is six times more plastic than plankton by weight in the patch and that this is having disastrous ecological consequences. Fish and seabirds mistake plastic for food and choke to death. At the same time, plastics absorb pollutants including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and pesticides, bringing poisons into the food chain.

In one study of plastic pollution in the Pacific, scientists found that populations of albatrosses in the north-west Hawaiian Islands, a national marine sanctuary, have been devastated by plastic from the garbage patch. “Their body cavities are full of huge chunks of many types of plastics, from toothbrushes to bottle caps to needles and syringes,” said Myra Finkelstein, an environmental toxicologist based at University of California, Santa Cruz. “They can’t get them up. They can’t get them out. It’s heartbreaking.”

This point is backed by Moore. “The plastic gadgets one typically finds in the stomach of one of these birds could stock the checkout counter at a convenience story,” he said.

Last year, a raft built of waste and debris, known as the Junk Raft, was built by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which had been set up by Charles Moore after discovering the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This simply constructed craft floated on a mass of 15,000 plastic bottles and was sailed through the patch by oceanographers Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal. They, too, were aiming to highlight the global issue of plastic pollution in the oceans.

However, de Rothschild insists his project has a grander vision. He is seeking not just to show up the planet’s ecological woes but, through the design and construction of Plastiki, he also will be highlighting how disposable plastics can be used in a constructive way.

“I want the Plastiki to make a statement that it’s our lack of reuse, uses and disposal that it is at fault, not the material itself,” he said.

The eco-warrior also has designed his mission so that it copies key features of the voyage of the Kon-Tiki in which Heyerdahl — a hero of de Rothschild — sailed across the Pacific to show how ancient South American Indians could have colonised Polynesia. As a result, de Rothschild originally set his launch date for 28 April — exactly 62 years to the day when Heyerdahl set out on his epic journey across the Pacific. However, teething problems with Plastiki recently forced him to postpone departure until this summer.

Nevertheless, de Rothschild insists his craft will sail shortly and could one day revolutionise the use of recycled plastics in general and the design of boats in particular. Much will depend on how his craft behaves once the Plastiki expedition is under way, he admitted to the New Yorker magazine. His craft should perform well, but could break up, he said.

“These are just unknowns,” he added. “That’s an adventure! If it was planned and everyone knew, no one would be interested.”


Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

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