Plastiki: Message in a bottle raft

British adventurer David de Rothschild plans to sail from San Francisco to Australia in a 60-foot vessel made from recycled plastic bottles--and to teach the world a few lessons about recycling along the way.

British adventurer and bank dynasty heir David de Rothschild plans to sail from San Francisco to Australia--in a boat made from discarded soft-drink bottles.

No sharp epoxy smells greet us on San Francisco's Pier 31 when we go to visit de Rothschild on a sunny weekday afternoon. Instead, popping sounds from bottles being re-inflated echo like a huge popcorn machine in the northern end of a hangar. This is where the strange vessel, called "Plastiki," is being built.

In part of this hangar the size of a football field, 12,000 recycled bottles donated by the Waste Management company are being washed, cleaned, and pressurized for their new role--acting as flotation devices in the two pontoons of the 60-foot high-tech catamaran.

"If we really want to move from Planet 1.0 to Planet 2.0, we need to really start taking action and stop just talking," de Rothschild says as he arrives at the construction site.

The tall, bearded 30-year-old--a charismatic scion of the British Rothschild bank dynasty and the youngest British person to ever reach both the North and South poles--demands attention as he circles the busy site.

He runs the Adventure Ecology educational organization and is the mastermind behind the Plastiki project, which, among other things, aims to change people's perception of garbage. Today, most plastic bottles in the U.S. are not recycled, according to environmental organizations, and instead end up in the world's landfills and oceans.

"Thirty-nine billion plastic bottles are consumed in the U.S. every year," de Rothschild says. "Only 20 percent are recycled. Imagine what that is in terms of resources."

The lofty goal of a voyage to Australia has spurred a number of inventions. The skeletal hull, decks, and cabin of the boat, for example, are made of composite Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) plastic panels consisting of layers of self-reinforcing PET skins, a woven fabric made of reused plastic.

"What we have been exploring with is biocomposites, bioglues, biopolymers," de Rothschild says, "things that are not just going to be positive for this project, but have ongoing implications."

But isn't it risky to experiment with these new advanced solutions while floating in the Pacific Ocean?

Plastic at a glance

15 billion pounds of plastic are produced in the U.S. every year. Only 1 billion are recycled.
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Making a year's worth of plastic water bottles in North America alone requires about the same amount of oil needed to fuel 100,000 cars.
Read more (PDF)

Plastics could take over as the dominating material in the oceans. In the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton.
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In the oceans, plastics kill at least 1 million seabirds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles each year.
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"Everything is tested with engineers," says de Rothschild, who in 2007 was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. "To really change our planet, to become a smart planet, we have to see leadership, passion, and people taking certain risks."

One of the inspirations behind not only the name Plastiki, but the adventure itself, was Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 Kon Tiki expedition across the Pacific in a reproduction of an ancient Inca raft.

But the Heyerdal connection goes deeper. One of six crew members for a leg of the 11,000-mile journey across the Pacific to Sydney, Australia, is actually Heyerdahl's granddaughter, Josian Heyerdahl.

An array of green gadgets will fill the catamaran: flexible solar panels, two wind turbines, and a trailing turbine generation and propulsion system. The vessel will also house a vacuum water evaporator for desalination and a urine-to-water recovery system.

De Rothschild says the crew probably doesn't need all that equipment, but the raft can nonetheless serve as a platform for showcasing solutions to ecological problems. He says the Plastiki project costs more than he would like (he doesn't want to disclose figures), but he is getting full sponsorship from watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen and skin products company Kiehl's, as well as computer technology from Hewlett-Packard.

"HP shares David's belief that through greater awareness of our global environment, people can be inspired to rethink how they can live their lives in a more sustainable, environmentally responsible way," Hewlett-Packard spokeswoman Marlene Somsak said in a statement.

The expedition, which is due to take off in "a few months," according to de Rothschild, will be accompanied by the launch of a global design competition, sponsored by Adventure Ecology's Sculpt the Future Foundation. The contest will solicit recycling solutions, with winners getting grants. De Rothschild wants people around the globe to see used plastic as a resource.

"The expedition of going from A to B is only the beginning," he says. "If I can build a boat made entirely of materials that are fully recyclable materials and cross the ocean, why can't we build everyday household items that are cradle to cradle, rather than cradle to grave?"

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About the author

    Erik Palm, a business reporter for Swedish national television, is joining CNET News as a spring 2009 fellow with Stanford University's Innovation Journalism program. When he's not working, he enjoys kayaking and exploring California's hiking trails. E-mail Erik.

     

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