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Voyage of the Plastiki

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Lisa Song | Apr 05, 2010 09:50 AM

Two weeks have passed since 12,000 plastic bottles began riding the waves from San Francisco to Sydney. This is no mini Pacific Garbage Patch--the bottles form the bulk of the Plastiki, a 60-foot sailing boat built from recycled materials.

Its big, flashy journey is intended to raise awareness about manmade pollution in the ocean. Perhaps the most famous example is the Northern Pacific Gyre, where thousands of pounds of plastic accumulate as bobbing trash islands (collectively referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). According to the New York Times, a 2006 United Nations report estimated that

every pound of plankton in the central Pacific Ocean is offset by about 6 pounds of litter...every square mile of ocean is home to nearly 50,000 pieces of litter, much of which tends to harm or kill wildlife that either ingests the plastic or gets trapped in discarded netting, which is just as common in the Northern Gyre as discarded soda bottles.

In contrast, everything about the Plastiki screams green. The mast is a former aluminum irrigation pipe, the sails were fashioned from repurposed plastic. Even the 12,000 plastic bottles that make up the hull are post-consumer products. There are solar panels and windmills on board, plus an organic food garden fertilized by human waste (generously supplied by the 6-member crew). As if that wasn't enough, the crew is drinking fresh water filtered from their own urine.

The entire venture is the brainchild of British banking heir David de Rothschild (who's also part of the crew).  Between Twitter, Facebook, and the official blog, the journey is awash in publicity. Filmmaker Vern Moen is on board to document every moment. You can even track the boat's position in units of plastic bottles. As of Monday, April 5, the Plastiki Control Center read,

Today the Plastiki travelled 67 nautical miles = the length of 424512 plastic bottles = .0071% of all plastic bottles thrown away by Americans today.

Fact: roughly 50% of all plastic products end up in the ocean.

 A lot of that plastic floats around in places you wouldn't expect. Take Puget Sound: research over the past 3 years found plenty of litter around all the Sound's beaches. It didn't matter if there was a city nearby. Even the uninhabited islands were ringed with junk.

It would be the ultimate irony if the Plastiki ended up as ocean trash. (After all, the hull is held together by an organic glue composed of cashew nut butter and sugar cane). Powered solely by sails, wind, and a small biodiesel engine, the Plastiki may run into problems in rough waters. “We don’t have the ability to get out of the way (of a storm),” said de Rothschild. “So what we need is to have enough confidence in the vessel to say, ‘Right, a storm is coming through, we’ll put up a little storm jib and hunker down and let it go over.’ ”
 

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