An interview with David de Rothschild, whose new book documents his 8,000-mile journey in all its hare-brained idealism
In 2010, jack-of-all-trades environmentalist David de Rothschild sailed from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia—on a boat made from 12,500 plastic bottles and cashew-nut glue.
A modern-day spin on Thor Heyerdahl's famous Kon-Tiki exploration, this voyage had a dual purpose. First, de Rothschild wanted to demonstrate how everyday consumer plastics, with a little imagination, can be reused to accomplish spectacular feats of engineering. Second, the mission sought to attract attention to the vast amounts of plastic floating in our oceans. No one's ventured a ballpark worldwide volume, but the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—an ocean gyre that acts like a vortex for sea-borne plastic—is twice the size of Texas. (It's one of five colossal trash gyres worldwide.) In some oceanic zones, tiny plastic pellets (the polymer version of sea glass) are more abundant than krill or kelp.
De Rothschild's new book, Plastiki: Across the Pacific on Plastic, An Adventure to Save Our Oceans, documents the 8,000-mile journey in all its hare-brained idealism. The six crewmembers lived for four months on an untested, unorthodox sailboat, living off kale from the hydroponic garden (watered with recycled crew urine), generating electricity with solar panels, deck bicycles, and outboard turbines. The book's presentation is as eclectic as the plastic bits gathered in a whale's belly: We relive the journey and learn about its implications through hundreds of glossy photos, crew testimony, ecstatic tweets, hand-drawn flowcharts, splashy graphics, and interviews with expert environmental scientists.
David de Rothschild spoke to me by phone from San Francisco. We talked about the narrative power of adventures, the economics of the plastic industry, and how an Evian bottle thrown away in Illinois can end up in the middle of the Atlantic.
You're an ecologist, activist, journalist, TV host, traveler. How would you describe your profession?
I want to give nature a voice through storytelling—and this requires a kind of focused environmental ADD. You know, there's no such thing as a box in nature. Boxes are human inventions. And to tackle these issues you have to think outside the box, otherwise you're limiting your scope and your work. You have to be a champion of change across all mediums, whether that's through TV, design, exploration, traveling, teaching, talking, touring, whatever it is.
So why is adventuring, in your view, an important way to shed light on our ecological challenges?
Adventure is a very charming medium, in the sense that it's far more attractive to learn about something in an adventurous way than the old-school, wordy way. The old-school method goes like, "Um, the oceans are screwed, they're filling up with plastic, you're part of the problem—and, oh, you should be interested in this." Right?
Our method is to say, "The oceans have a problem, but we're going to build a boat out of plastic bottles, sail across the world on it, prove anything's possible. Do you want to get involved?" Which one would you rather go for? Adventure allows better integration of the message, and more accessibility to the message.
Not only that, adventures generate stories, and stories inspire more people to dream and ultimately ask questions. Someone who's seen the Plastiki might also then turn around and start asking: "Can I build a boat? Can I undertake my own adventure? If he can build this boat out of plastic bottles and sail across the south Pacific, can't I become more sustainable in my everyday life?" As soon as someone starts asking questions, they're on their own adventure.
What went into the boat's creation? What's so noteworthy about the design of your craft, the Plastiki?
We tried to make it—on every level—as sustainable as possible. To do that meant that we had to avoid the path of least resistance. And in order to do that, we had to innovate.
One breakthrough was realizing that pressurizing bottles gives them more integrity and strength. By putting C02 powder in every bottle and letting it evaporate into a gas, we found a way to turn a weak structure into an incredibly strong structure. This emphasizes the design work that goes into plastic bottles—how incredible the engineering is, how resilient these things are, and yet how disposable we make them.
The second big breakthrough was the structural material that we developed [the recycled PET compound, Seretex], which allowed us to generate the Plastiki's skeletal structure. That was an enormous breakthrough because not only did that allow us the longitudinal rigidity, the strength down the length of the boat. But it's also allowed to take plastic—and show that we can take discarded plastic bottles and effectively create a material that doesn't need to be like-for-like—take one plastic to make another plastic bottle. But you can take a plastic bottle and build a bridge. You can build a boat. You can build a house. You can build rooftops. You can build skateboards. You can build whatever you can build now with this material. What that does is change the narrative that plastic is valueless and single-use—now [it] becomes, "Plastic is valuable and multi-use."
Why do you think the plastic industry hasn't tapped into long-term use for its plastics? Wouldn't it make their own products more valuable?
No. It's the high-volume, high-consumption model. The margins on a straw, say, are tiny. They want to sell 60 billion straws every year to make their profits, as opposed to something where you buy one, and that's it. It's not in the interest of the plastic industry to make products that are reusable and last longer when they're making money on high-volume, low-margin products, and churn, and consumption. It's an age-old problem: we live in a disposable society. At one point, it was a sign of affluence, I guess. These days, we've become highly suspicious of hygiene—so we use plastic forks once and throw them out. And we're hooked on convenience.
It's interesting that plastic is both villain and hero of your story. Yes, plastic's a dangerous, ubiquitous pollutant—but it's also a useful industrial material with vast untapped sustainable-design potential. How should we feel about it?