Message in a Bottle, w/ David de Rothschild

When Thor Heyerdahl sailed his balsa wood raft Kontiki across the Pacific Ocean, he was trying to prove that the settlement of the region emanated from South America; by contrast David de Rothschild’s boat the Plastiki – constructed solely from plastic bottles – is now a third of the way from San Francisco to Sydney, Australia, attempting to draw the world’s attention to the fact that the same ocean is now home not to exploring people but vast acres of man’s detritus. Below, as excerpted from OCEANS, The Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do To Turn the Tide he comments on his journey.

There has never been a better example of using adventure to inspire, engage and change perceptions of an existing reality than Thor Heyerdahl’s exploits in the South Pacific. In 1947 the Norwegian adventurer set out to prove that pre-Colombian indigenous people from South America could have populated the Polynesian islands by migrating- no fewer than 4,300 miles- by boat. Heyerdahl and his crew traveled to Peru, where they constructed a balsa wood raft using only those materials and knowledge that would have been available before European influence. Six adventurers clambered aboard the boat they called Kontiki and sailed it across the Pacific to test Heyerdahl’s theory of oceanic migration.

The raft made it; his theory did not. But the Kontiki’s storyline created one of the most compelling and captivating adventures of the last century. It danced across the imaginations of multiple generations, sowing the sense of excitement and freedom that comes with following one’s dreams.

Heyerdahl’s adventure was sitting foremost in my mind in late 2006 as I struggled to come up with a compelling method to illustrate one of the most significant and unnecessary manmade environmental, and now health, issues of our time. There had to be a way to stem this plastic plague, a plague that’s ultimately been driven by our over consumption, miss-use, lack of recapture and inefficient design.

As I walked to the Adventure Ecology offices one morning, I was pondering the question: what do we have in our time that’s readily available, as plentiful as balsa wood, and could be used to construct a craft for a journey that would both highlight all the messages above and test a theory a la the Kontiki in the open ocean? The answer was literally at my feet. Plastic bottles.

Modern society produces piles upon piles of plastic bottles. And while the United States leads the world in the consumption of bottled water, it is truly a global phenomenon. According to the Beverage Marketing Corporation, worldwide consumption reached forty-one billion gallons of water in 2004, an increase of fifty-seven percent in just five years. We chug and chuck, chug and chuck, day after day, month after month.

The plastic water bottle epitomizes the absurdity of our throwaway society. Each and every day, Americans consume 70 million bottles of water. That adds up to nearly nine billion gallons of water annually at a cost of approximately $11 billion; despite the fact that both the purity and taste of water flowing from the taps in our homes and workplaces is of equal or better quality. An even crueler irony is that according to the nonprofit research organization Pacific Institute it takes two liters of water to manufacture a one-liter plastic bottle. And the energy used during the life cycle of a single-use plastic bottle – from making the bottle itself to filling, shipping, chilling, and finally disposing of it – is equivalent to filling it one-quarter full with oil. Far from being “natural” or even virtuous, as many consider it, bottled water is the poster child for wasteful indulgence.

So the next step in thinking was logical. We need to re-design, re-value, reduce, reuse, and ultimately rethink our use of plastic so that it can contribute to solutions rather than compounding the problems. And with a respectful nod to the Kontiki and its audacious, attention-grabbing voyage, the Plastiki expedition was born!

The goal started out as sailing across the Pacific, from San Francisco to Sydney, to bring a global spotlight on to the plight of our oceans and marine life at the hands of plastic debris. However realizing the enormity of the problem it became apparent that if our expedition was ever going to capture hearts and minds as well as foster the creation of solutions we couldn’t just sail on any old vessel.

To this end a simple yet compelling concept was developed: construct a boat entirely out of two-liter plastic bottles, recycled waste products and innovative materials. We thought that if Plastiki could showcase smart designs that rethink the waste polluting our seas as a resource, not only a la Heyerdahl, the vessel could garner media attention on behalf of our imperiled oceans but the project would be an opportunity to develop solutions that could help to revaluate waste materials, like how we use them, what we use them for, and most importantly our disposing of them. We were hoping for a good chance to finally stem the rising tide of plastics.