I don't agree with Rothchild's conclusion, which seems to be that
plastic is OK if it's re-used - that's failing to appreciate the
depth of the problem, which is that over time, plastic degrades into
tiny little toxic fragments, which are slowly filling the oceans and
our foodchains. Reusing it merely accelerates this process of
degradation, rather than stopping it, does little to discourage its
use, and does nothing to encourage the production of alternative
Nonetheless it's a decent effort at raising awareness, and it's
certainly better than swanning from one party to another, as this man
could choose to do. So I have to give it at least a 6.
Eco-warrior sets sail to save oceans from 'plastic death'
Billionaire banking heir David de Rothschild plans a remarkable
journey in a plastic boat to highlight the enormous 'garbage patch'
caught up in the swirling Pacific Ocean currents. Robin McKie reports
The Observer, Sunday 12 April 2009
In a few weeks, the heir to one of the world's greatest fortunes,
David de Rothschild, will set sail across the Pacific - in a boat,
the Plastiki, made from plastic bottles and recycled waste. The aim
of this extraordinary venture is simple: to focus attention on one of
the world's strangest and most unpleasant environmental phenomena:
the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a rubbish-covered region of ocean,
several hundred miles in diameter.
The patch, north-west of Hawaii, was discovered in 1999 by
researchers who found that its waters contained tens of thousands of
pieces of plastic per square mile, the remains of rubbish caught in
the region's circulating ocean currents. This pollution is now
devastating populations of seabirds and fish that live in the region.
During his trip, which is being sponsored by the International Watch
Company and Hewlett-Packard, de Rothschild will collect water samples
and post blogs, photographs and video clips of the area, in an
attempt to publicise the perils posed by plastic pollution.
To further highlight the oceans' plastic pollution problems, the 30-
year-old environment crusader has designed a special catamaran with a
hull made of frames filled with 12,000 plastic bottles. The cabin and
bulkheads of Plastiki have also been constructed out of a special
recycled material called srPET, made of webs of plastic.
"The plastic water bottle epitomises everything about this throwaway,
disposable society," said de Rothschild, who trained to be a
showjumper in England and who has trekked to both the north and south
poles. However, he added that he was not aiming to demonise plastic,
but was trying to highlight its alternative uses, as well as focusing
global attention on the dangers posed to the ecology in regions such
as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
The Plastiki - its name inspired by the balsa raft Kon-Tiki that was
built and sailed across the Pacific in 1947 by the Norwegian explorer
Thor Heyerdahl - is now undergoing trials in San Francisco harbour.
"The project has gone through several materials, exploring everything
from bamboo to plywood, even playing around with the idea of sewing
all the bottles together in one giant sock," said de Rothschild. As a
result, the 20-metre catamaran has cost several million dollars to
construct and has taken three years to reach its current design. When
it is ready, in a few weeks, it will carry de Rothschild and a crew
of six on a 10,500-mile journey from San Francisco to Hawaii, Midway
Island, Bikini Atoll, Vanuatu and, finally, Sydney. There will be no
accompanying craft, but the Plastiki will be met by a support team at
The destinations for the craft's great voyage have been selected to
highlight a variety of environmental threats, including overfishing
and climate change. However, the most important part of Plastiki's
route will be its voyage round the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the
Pacific, where it will focus global awareness on the issue of marine
debris and pollution.
The patch was discovered 10 years ago by the oceanographer Charles
Moore when he was sailing off Hawaii. "I was confronted, as far as
the eye could see, with the sight of plastic," Moore later recalled.
Among the items he spotted were plastic coat hangers, an inflated
volleyball, a truck tyre and dozens of plastic fishing floats.
"In the week it took to cross, no matter what time of day I looked,
plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps,
wrappers, fragments." Indeed, the term "patch" does not begin to
convey the nature of the phenomenon, Moore added. A "plastic soup"
has been created, he said, one that has spread over an area that is
now bigger than state of Texas.
The plastic - most of it swept from coastal cities in Asia and
California - is trapped indefinitely in the region by the North
Pacific Gyre, a vortex of currents that circulate clockwise around
the ocean. Scientists estimate that there is six times more plastic
than plankton by weight in the patch and that this is having
disastrous ecological consequences. Fish and seabirds mistake plastic
for food and choke to death. At the same time, plastics absorb
pollutants including PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and pesticides,
bringing poisons into the food chain.
In one study of plastic pollution in the Pacific, scientists found
that populations of albatrosses in the north-west Hawaiian islands, a
national marine sanctuary, have been devastated by plastic from the
garbage patch. "Their body cavities are full of huge chunks of many
types of plastics, from toothbrushes to bottle caps to needles and
syringes," said Myra Finkelstein, an environmental toxicologist based
at University of California, Santa Cruz. "They can't get them up.
They can't get them out. It's heartbreaking."
This point is backed by Moore. "The plastic gadgets one typically
finds in the stomach of one of these birds could stock the checkout
counter at a convenience story," he said.
Last year, a raft built of waste and debris, known as the Junk Raft,
was built by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which had been
set up by Charles Moore after discovering the Great Pacific Garbage
Patch. This simply constructed craft floated on a mass of 15,000
plastic bottles and was sailed through the patch by oceanographers
Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal. They too were aiming to highlight
the global issue of plastic pollution in the oceans.
However, de Rothschild insists his project has a grander vision. He
is seeking not just to show up the planet's ecological woes but,
through the design and construction of Plastiki, he will also be
highlighting how disposable plastics can be used in a constructive
"I want the Plastiki to make a statement that it's our lack of reuse,
uses and disposal that it is at fault, not the material itself," he
The eco-warrior has also designed his mission so that it copies key
features of the voyage of the Kon-Tiki in which Thor Heyerdahl - a
hero of de Rothschild - sailed across the Pacific to show how ancient
South American Indians could have colonised Polynesia. As a result,
de Rothschild originally set his launch date for 28 April - exactly
62 years to the day when Heyerdahl set out on his epic journey across
the Pacific. However, teething problems with Plastiki recently forced
him to postpone departure until later this summer.
Nevertheless, de Rothschild insists his craft will sail in the next
few weeks and could one day revolutionise the use of recycled
plastics in general and the design of boats in particular. Much will
depend on how his craft behaves once the Plastiki expedition is under
way, he admitted to the New Yorker recently. His craft should perform
well, but could break up, he said.
"These are just unknowns," he added. "That's an adventure! If it was
planned and everyone knew, no one would be interested."
[graphic of Garbage Patch]
Life of an eco-toff
David de Rothschild regularly appears in Tatler's list of Britain's
most eligible bachelors. He is the third child of Victoria Schott, a
former fundraiser for the Conservative party, and Sir Evelyn de
Rothschild, head of the British branch of the family banking empire.
He was a member of Britain's junior eventing team, and has taken part
in trekking expeditions across the Antarctic and Arctic icecaps,
making him the youngest Briton to reach both poles. He owns an
organic farm in New Zealand, and later founded Adventure Ecology
which aims to use his travels as a way to engage children in green
He is also author of the Live Earth Global Warming Survival Handbook.
In 2007, these feats earned him inclusion in the National
Geographic's class of Emerging Explorers. He is also known as one of
the country's leading "eco-toffs", those young men and women who use
their inherited wealth to promote environmental causes.