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Whatever Floats Your Boat

Plastiki Launch

The emperor has no clothes. Or rather, the British billionaire’s boat won’t float. A few years ago, English trust funder David de Rothschild and his group Adventure Ecology commissioned a sailboat called Plastiki to be built out of some 12,000 used plastic bottles. Their idea was to sail the rig from San Francisco to Australia, along the way highlighting the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the danger plastic poses to marine ecosystems. The media ate it up and publications such as The New Yorker, National Geographic, and The New York Times praised the endeavor, even though its actual benefit has yet to be determined.

As a publicity stunt, Plastiki is an undeniable success. As an environmental action, it leaves something to be desired.

For starters, the route the ship is taking is known to be a fairly rough one, and if the waves prove to be too much, Plastiki could wind up dumping a few more plastic bottles into the ocean. Even if the boat remains in one piece, its bottles could be leeching toxic chemicals into the ocean throughout the journey. The group deliberately sourced PET bottles for the boat to avoid using bottles that might leech bisphenol A, but several recent studies have revealed that PET also leeches chemicals that interfere with estrogen levels and reproductive systems. It’s possible the boat could be leeching toxic chemicals into the ocean as it sails.

Moreover, anonymous sources involved with the project revealed to Earth Island Journal recently that the project team was not able to get as many used bottles as were needed to build Plastiki; some of the bottles used are actually new. Of the used bottles, many were found in dumpsters and washed by underpaid and poorly treated workers from Mexico and Guatemala, according to one source.

Although often portrayed as something de Rothschild is doing out of the goodness of his heart, and with his own funds, the project is funded largely by its corporate partners: Hewlett Packard, Kiehls, and watchmaker IWC Schaffhausen. De Rothschild’s organization, Adventure Ecology, is not a nonprofit, although it does a very good job of presenting itself as one without ever making the claim directly.

“We weren’t able to get certain things until the HP check came in, ” our source tells us.

While Plastiki may succeed in raising awareness, it is also spreading misinformation. To his credit, De Rothschild has been good about saying that recycling is not the answer to the plastic pollution problem, but by creating a boat out of used bottles and pushing the "second use" route for plastics, his actions are furthering the misconception that plastic can still be used for disposable items, just so long as it’s recycled or re-used. The fact is, it is dangerous to re-use a plastic bottle as a bottle, and turning it into anything else is energy-intensive.

In the interest of gaining more exposure, the Plastiki team has also opted to embellish or tweak the truth from time to time. Rather than crediting the boat’s designer, Andy Dovell, the Plastiki website and news stories about the expedition often list Nathaniel Corum of Architecture for Humanity as the designer of the cabin, and biomimicry king Michael Pawlin as the boat’s designer. After all, the names Nathaniel Corum and Michael Pawlin mean something in the design world, and no one’s really ever heard of Andy Dovell.

The team also has made multiple mentions of the boat sailing “through the Great Pacific Garbage.” But now that the boat has launched, it’s clear that won’t be happening. According to a sailing expert we spoke with (again, anonymously, for fear of a court battle with the exceedingly wealthy Rothschilds), “given the prevailing winds at this time of year I can’t really see how it can be done, unless the boat goes to Hawaii first then heads north.” And in fact the skipper’s log about the boat’s trip reveals that Plastiki’s first port of call will be in the Line Island group, which lies about 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, toward Samoa.

Given that the primary purpose of Plastiki is to raise awareness, any misinformation it spreads, even if it’s about seemingly trivial details, could undermine its mission. Perhaps more to the point, with billions of dollars at his disposal, not to mention serious connections all over the world, it would be great to see de Rothschild invest in more tangible solutions, whether they come with great photo ops or not.

Amy Westervelt, Journalist
The former Managing Editor of the Journal, Amy is associate editor for The Faster Times and This Week in Earth, a columnist for Forbes, and contributes to an assortment of other magazines and websites. In 2007, Amy won the Folio Eddie for excellence in magazine editorial for her feature on algae as a feedstock for biofuel, which was published in Sustainable Industries magazine.

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By Greg Laden on Thu, April 01, 2010 at 3:32 pm

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