As you may have heard, David de Rothschild, 31, an heir to the famous European banking fortune, is building a catamaran out of some 12,500 plastic water bottles and sailing it from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia. He plans to depart by the end of the year with two full-time skippers and a cameraman. Along the way they'll pass through the Eastern Garbage Patch, a slowly twirling vortex of suspended plastic bits in the North Pacific that's been estimated at twice the size of Texas. At stopover islands on the route, he'll pick up and drop off temporary crew members scientists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, athletes, even Hollywood celebrities, if they have environmental credibility who will help him market his message.
De Rothschild named his boat Plastiki to invoke the spirit of Kon-Tiki, the legendary balsa raft that Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. (Two of Heyerdahl's grandchildren may join de Rothschild during the sail.) There's been a small mountain of media coverage since de Rothschild announced the project, in early 2007, and pretty much every story starts out by noting that he is rich and bearded.
A wacky boat, interesting characters, a horror-inducing environmental disaster it's a pretty good recipe for "raising awareness," the frequently stated purpose of many expeditions in recent years. Crossing an ocean, descending a river, or climbing a mountain simply "because it's there" has been out of vogue for some time. Today's adventurer seems obligated to explain his latest quest by claiming that it will trumpet an important issue. The most popular choice by far is global warming, mostly because it can justify exploration almost anywhere. De Rothschild rang the climate alarm bell himself in 2006, when he attempted a dogsled-supported crossing of the North Pole, from Russia to Canada.
What makes this adventure different is de Rothschild's realization which he slowly came to while trying to build his ridiculous yacht that he would have to do a hell of a lot more than just get people's attention if he really wanted to solve a big problem like plastics in the ocean. If the Plastiki began as a bit of cheeky eco-awareness stagecraft, it's evolved into something that's far more complicated and technical than he ever imagined. The result is a boat that could, by its very design, begin to break the chain of waste that starts with disposable materials and ends with trillions of tiny toxic fragments polluting our oceans.
"'Raising awareness' that was my first understanding of my capacity," says de Rothschild. "But then I went, Hold on, awareness is easy. The question became: How do we go from awareness to a tangible solution?"
ON A BRILLIANTLY sunny day in San Francisco this past September, de Rothschild took me to see the in-progress Plastiki, which was being assembled inside Pier 31, a cavernous, warehouse-like space on the bay. Though a lanky six foot four, de Rothschild looked comfortable folded behind the wheel of his new Toyota Prius. In the back were two friends, Karina Deyko and Bruce Parry (a popular adventure-documentary host in the UK), with whom he'd spent the previous week at Nevada's Burning Man festival. Between them sat de Rothschild's dogs: Smudge, a Staffordshire bull terrier, and Nesta, a miniature schnauzer.
Outside the pier, another de Rothschild pal, Steve Cooper, frontman for the indie band Spirit Animal, was waiting for us in shorts, an adobe-pink cutoff shirt, and a straw hat. "Hey, man!" said de Rothschild, opening his window. He likes to refer to the Plastiki as a "convener," and the project does attract all sorts of interesting people. Later in the afternoon, Paul Hawken, the author of Natural Capitalism, would be stopping by. The next day, de Rothschild was expecting actor Adrian Grenier.
Inside the pier, nine workers were applying electric drills and various clanging tools to two 60-foot-long, white pointy hull frames connected by an arcing deck. Nearby, thousands of clear plastic bottles spilled out of bins. De Rothschild was feeling energized. Not only was his boat taking shape, but he'd consumed what he swore was his first-ever coffee at lunch. He bounced around the work site, greeting his team eagerly before quickly sitting down at a computer to tweet about his caffeine buzz. ("This stuff is like crack! Why didn't anyone tell me?")
He began our tour by explaining that his North Pole trip had shown him the limitations of an expedition to galvanize change. It had been the first mission of Adventure Ecology, an organization he'd founded on the idea of using far-flung exploration to get younger generations excited about solving environmental problems. "I got back and it felt so abstract," he said. "We were talking about inert gases in the atmosphere."
For his second journey, he decided to take on a more concrete cause: waste. He concluded early on that he couldn't build a viable craft with just bottles, but he wanted the Plastiki to incorporate them in a way that emphasized that "waste is a design flaw," a line credited to Kate Krebs, of the Climate Group. In January 2008, he hired renowned Australian naval architect Andrew Dovell, the lead designer of the last three America's Cup challengers, who set about designing a catamaran frame made of recycled plastics, with bottles attached to give the hulls positive buoyancy.
Problem was, there wasn't a recycled plastic strong enough to make a trustworthy frame for Plastiki. A hunt for alternatives led to self-reinforced polyethylene terephthalate, or srPET, a new fabric-like derivative of the stuff used in plastic bottles. Like fiberglass, srPET has a rigid structure. Unlike fiberglass, which is a hybrid material using glass filaments, plastic fibers, and epoxy glue, srPET can be recycled, because it's composed entirely of plastic. Since srPET was so new, de Rothschild's team had to develop a way to manufacture it into panels. They created an assembly line that bonds srPET sheets around cores of PET foam with a machine that makes snowboards and ended up building the entire boat with it. The result is that the Plastiki can one day be melted down to make shoes, jackets, flooring, or, say, the Plastiki II.
Dovell concedes that srPET isn't ideal for a boat as large as the Plastiki because it's not quite as stiff as fiberglass, so it could bend out of shape in heavy seas. But, he says, "it's insanely tough you cannot break it," which makes it perfect for whitewater kayaks. He estimates that within five years, srPET will supplant rotomolded plastic a weaker hybrid material that can't be recycled as the dominant substance used in many small boats.
De Rothschild has even bigger dreams. He envisions srPET replacing disposable substances in everything from computer casing to skateboards and says the Plastiki gives him the perfect conversation starter with manufacturers to make this happen.
"If I walked into a big company and said, 'I want to talk to you about your supply-chain waste,' they'd be like, 'Well, get in the queue; there are a lot of other consultants,'" he said, standing in front of the Plastiki's twin bows. "But if I say, 'I'm going to build a boat made of twelve and a half thousand water bottles and sail from San Francisco to Sydney, I'm going to engineer new materials, and look at waste as a design flaw, would you like to get involved?' They get curious."
He turned and looked at his boat. "We use it as an ointment to attract the flies."
DE ROTHSCHILD's innovative application of srPET may be the project's most enduring legacy, but engineering a new material is slow going. While his team was plodding through the R&D process, a Southern California scientist named Marcus Eriksen built a simple 30-foot vessel with pontoons made from 15,000 plastic bottles, a deck of retired sailboat masts, and a cabin from an old Cessna. Along with a former NOAA employee named Joel Paschal, he sailed it from Long Beach to Hawaii in the summer of 2008 "to raise awareness about plastics fouling our oceans." Eriksen had originally planned to call his boat Plastiki, too, but changed the name to the Junk Raft after learning about de Rothschild's expedition. Media zeroed in on the battling bottle boats, but both de Rothschild and Eriksen insist they weren't competing.
Still, the Junk Raft complicated de Rothschild's messaging. On top of having to answer questions about the thickness of his wallet and all the delays in building the Plastiki he'd originally told people he'd start sailing in April 2009 he was now under pressure to explain how his project was different. But while de Rothschild has been frustrated by some stories about Plastiki, he says that seeing how others explain his efforts has helped him clarify what he's trying to do. "It gives me a chance to reflect: Is my message right?" he says. "And we've definitely become more efficient at understanding what we're trying to achieve over these last three years."
Indeed, the reality is that de Rothschild is better equipped to be a marketer than an expedition leader. Before his Adventure Ecology trip to the Arctic, his expedition résumé consisted of just two ski treks, across Antarctica and Greenland. But he's charismatic and articulate, which is why the Sundance Channel tapped him to host an environmental show called Eco-Trip, which aired April through July. On the Plastiki, he has no illusions of playing captain; he says his role will be storyteller. "My strength is in creating a platform to make a lot of noise," he says.
So far, he's been loud enough to attract big-dollar sponsors like Hewlett-Packard and the International Watch Company. (He won't share any numbers but says that he hasn't put a cent of his own money into Plastiki.) In San Francisco, he showed me a pair of special-edition ACG Blazerboat high-tops that Nike had made for him out of recycled materials. They were black, "because I'm a pirate," he said, but with a pink tongue because, he joked, "I'm a bit of a gay pirate." De Rothschild's long-term goal is to get his corporate partners to adopt the waste-reducing lessons he learned in the "live laboratory" that developed in Pier 31. Besides srPET, which he imagines HP using in laptop cases, he sees wide applicability for a cashew-nut glue used on the Plastiki.
Once the expedition is under way, the satellite-communications service Inmersat will provide free airtime so de Rothschild can upload blog postings and live video feeds from the Eastern Garbage Patch and other spots. At some point soon, Nickelodeon will begin running interstitials about the Plastiki featuring SpongeBob and de Rothschild. When the journey is over, he'll publish a book about it, and National Geographic Television will air a documentary.
As de Rothschild sees it, the more people who hear about the trip, the better. "I think the perception can be, Here's an affluent kid, and this is some kind of environmental stunt," he says. "But if you do dig into it, you can't belittle it like that. You go, Actually, these guys have developed something fascinating and credible."
Of course, nobody really knows how srPET will tolerate four-plus months at sea; at press time, the Plastiki hadn't even gotten wet yet. As de Rothschild points out, "It's an untested material in an uncontrollable environment."
De Rothschild himself is similarly unproven on the open ocean. He's a fanatical kitesurfer but only recently took sailing lessons. "I'm going to say something that's probably going to annoy a lot of people," he told me over a beer at a restaurant near Pier 31, "but sailing is not rocket science."
That said, he's signed on two professional skippers from England, Jo Royle, a prominent female racer who's navigated the treacherous Southern Ocean, and David Thomson, who helped Steve Fossett set a transatlantic speed record on the catamaran PlayStation. Among the bigger bugs that will have to be worked out on the Pacific is how the Plastiki will escape the garbage patch, given the region's propensity to suck winds into its center until they die. "It's going to be interesting," he said.
De Rothschild says he has more Adventure Ecology projects in mind and that over the next couple of years he'll shift his focus from waste to the larger issue of water. For now, though, he just wants to finish his boat and start sailing. "I'm looking forward to leaving this behind," he said, gesturing over at Pier 31. "It's been three years, and I'm so close!"