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?
I think we have to recognize that plastic's not going to disappear any time soon, and we've got learn to live with the consequences of our modern materials. Plastic can be an incredibly reusable, resilient, sustainable material. It can be the right material. Look at the number of applications—you're sitting on a plastic phone, writing notes on a plastic computer, using a plastic pen to draw up some other notes. When you look around, you see how ubiquitous it is. It's probably the most ubiquitous of all man-made materials.
But it's really weird, when you think about it—here we are, giving babies their milk in these crazy little bottles. There's plastic in cosmetics that we're rubbing into our skins to exfoliate. We wrap our food in plastic. But plastic is oil-based. It's full of toxins! You wrap a bit of store-bought fish in a plastic wrapper, and bring it home—and its got traces of plastic in its tissues, traces of PCBs and carcinogenic oil-based properties. It's nuts that we surround ourselves with something that's so poisonous—and yet we market plastic as so innocent and disposable. We need to say, look, this isn't as infinitely disposable—and as silent—as we think.
Still, we can't demonize plastic, call it the enemy, and wholesale eliminate it—because that's not going to happen. Plastic's not going to disappear. So we need to understand it, recognize that we have to be smarter with its uses, smarter with its reclamation, and smarter with its re-uses.
For plastics that are single use—disposable lighters, pens, razors, combs—we have to drastically reduce our consumption, as well as create better reclamation processes that make disposal easier. And we have to make sure there's a better understanding of where plastic products end up when we're done with them. This means re-education at a basic school level all the way up to adults relaxing at the beach. It becomes very personal very quickly: if you're eating fish that's full of toxins, and one of those toxins is transferring through microparticles of plastic in our oceans, where are those microparticles coming from? Well, they're coming from you and me—with lazy disposal. We can show people that this isn't just an environmental issue—it's fundamentally a resource issue, and a health issue.
And we can and should eliminate dumb, single-use plastics. The Styrofoam cup's just a no-brainer. The plastic bag—another no-brainer. We can take them off the line and replace them with sustainable alternatives—today, if we wanted to.
A lot of people throw out plastic. But doesn't all that plastic get sealed into landfills? How is so much plastic ending up into the ocean?
If you're careless—leave something on the side of the road, or drop a plastic bag out the window of your car—generally, what happens is, when there's a big rain, all that stuff down goes storm drains, or down into the sewer systems. Most of that stuff washes into the waterways, into the river systems, and out to sea. And this happens more than you'd think. I went down to the LA river system, and it's literally unbelievable. There's plastic bags in trees, plastic bags everywhere.
Even when you put plastic into the trash system—a lot of landfills are very close to the ocean. They're on riverways so that they can barge rubbish out. And a lot of rubbish is actually sent overseas to different countries. All this means you'll find that trash gets windblown into the ocean—and often even disposed of at sea, sometimes on purpose.
The fishing industry, the tourism industry, the military—those guys are also unfortunately still dumping all their trash into our oceans. Those are just a few ways of it gets in there.
Other, less likely sources pollute our waterways, too: your book notes that an Exxon Valdez-size amount of oil enters the ocean every year just from sloppy oil changes.
When I read that, I was just astounded. I couldn't get my head around it. But when you think about it, we've got millions and millions and millions of cars. I think it was in [Cradle to Cradle] that said, if an alien landed on Earth, they'd probably think cars were the dominant species.
It shows how much more the ocean is interconnected the oceans are with our daily lives than most people suspect.
Yes. Every bit of plastic—that has ever been produced—is somewhere on our planet. Look at your house, and how much plastic you throw out at the end of every week. It's in the ocean, it's in the landfill. When you think about that—the fact that it doesn't disappear, the fact that we live on a closed system and we've created a disposable product that lasts forever, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that it's going to come back, in some form, and affect all of us.