For four years, David de Rothschild and his team labored in conceptual design, innovation and build to create the Plastiki. Composed primarily from recycled plastic bottles, the Plastiki, a unique, ocean going catamaran, sailed 8,000 nautical miles in 110 days with a crew of six from San Francisco, CA to Sydney Australia in 2010.
The next phase of her remarkable journey took place not on the high seas, but on the back of a flat bed truck as she traveled to Esplanade Fountain near Centennial Hall in Dallas’ Fair Park where she will remain for Earth Day celebrations during April and May.
As some of the stars of this year’s 3rd annual Engineering & Humanity Week, Plastiki, David de Rothschild and other members of the Plastiki team and crew met with over 500 school children on April 6. The event introduced the youngsters not only to the history and adventure of the Plastiki and her mission to bring attention to the global misuse of plastic, but also to ignite in them a spark of curiosity to seek out the possibilities that exist still undiscovered in their own lives.
“Hopefully I will inspire you guys to think about what you guys can do in your own world and everyday life to tackle some of the everyday problems we hear about,” de Rothschild said to the young students. “When you are on twitter or some website and you read about the problems our planet is facing, it often becomes a little bit depressing and sometimes it feels like these problems we face are too large to do anything about.
“I want you to know that even though I am standing here with a microphone and I might look a bit weird, I’m just like you, and that is the most important thing. I didn’t know or have any idea about how this was going to come to life. All I had was a crazy idea and a crazy dream. I started a conversation and started having interactions with people and asking what they thought. Most people basically said I was completely nuts, and said I should go do something else.
“Although what you see is incredible and has taken thousands and thousands of hours, it wasn’t just me, it was the team. There were a huge number of people involved in this project.”
In order to engage people in a discussion about climate change and the problems of waste, de Rothschild wanted to create something that people could touch, taste, see and be a part of.
“Every single day no matter how good you are, you are constantly creating a footprint. So the first thing that came to mind was bottled water. It seems like such a crazy concept,” de Rothschild said. “We go into countries all over the world. We grab water, we put it onto a boat and we ship it, and the water is encased in a plastic container. To make a two liter plastic bottle, takes one and half liters of water to make the plastic, which is kind of crazy.”
Eventually, de Rothschild came up with the concept of building a boat out of recycled plastic bottles. He named his creation the ‘Plastiki’ in homage to the Kon-Tiki, a balsawood raft used by explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 to sail from South America to the Polynesian Islands.
“I was doing a talk for Google in 2006, and one of the people on the panel was an architect,” de Rothschild said. “And I said to him, ‘Have you ever designed a boat?’ And he said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Perfect, I want to hire you to design a boat.’
“This guy was so curious and excited that he jumped straight into it. We spent the next 18 months to two years working through different concepts and designs of how we could keep the bottles together. One of the areas we went for inspiration was nature. Think about it, nature has had four and a half billion years of research and development to create what we all get to live within on spaceship Earth. Nature has amazing answers.
“The only thing I said to anybody who was involved in this project was that there were only two conditions: one the bottles had to be in there original form, and two they have to be functional,” he said.
“The bottles (filled with CO2) actually make up our buoyancy. So just under 70 percent of the flotation that we needed to sail this boat was coming from these bottles. If all the bottles were to disappear, this boat wouldn’t sail. Because we kept that as our starting point, everything else was open for interpretation. Anybody could throw out any ideas. It didn’t matter how stupid they were. All of the sudden everybody got excited and was throwing out all sorts of ideas about how we could make this boat come to life.”
Design plans hit a snag when the team could not find any acceptable board materials with which to build the structure of the boat.
“We couldn’t find any suitable materials that fit with the methodology and principles of this project,” de Rothschild said. “We tried to find post-consumer plastic made into sheet material and boards that we could use. We found all these different companies claiming they had all these materials.
“It kind of hit me on the head. The problem we have today with plastic isn’t because of plastic. It is because of us. In a way, plastic isn’t to blame. It is how we use it that is the problem. There are dumb single use plastics. The straws, plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic wraps, disposable razors, disposable cameras, all the stuff we get in our everyday lives that is so hard to avoid.
“On the other side, plastic is an awesome material. It just hasn’t been used correctly. We have a toxic love affair with this stuff,” he said.
“In the end, we had to engineer this new material. The shredded plastic is turned into a pellet. The pellet is extruded into a fiber, which is made into a sheet of material. When the material is pressed under heat, turns into a slightly harder material, and finally turns into a laminate in its final stage. It is a self reinforcing plastic, 100 percent PET and number one in the recycling stream.
“The name of the new material started out as SR-PET, which stands for Self Reinforcing –Polyethylene terephthalate. So then we imaginatively named it seratex, because it sounded a bit like vortex and we thought that was kind of cool. But it just stands for self reinforcing textile,” he said.
“The Plastiki weighs about 10.5 tons, 22,000 lbs, but it is about half the weight of a normal boat her size, because the material is half the weight of fiberglass and twice as strong.
“Once we knew we could make this strong board material which sat inside the principal of project of using material in a smart way, we could start to build the boat,” de Rothschild said. “So after nearly two years of conversations, failures, dead ends, we finally managed to start the build process.
“We took a snowboard press, modified it, and then we could start making these boards. One piece of this material 60 feet in length took 17 hours to create. The fabric would come through the snowboard press, you’d press a button, it would sit on there for about four minutes, and then we’d pull the next section through. Nobody else had done this. We had no idea how the material would perform. We didn’t know if it was going to work, but we knew we had something that could give us the structure.
We would build these massive sheets and cut shapes out. Those shapes would be locked into place. So the boat is like one huge jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “The boat is a culmination of a team of about 20 people working around the clock putting thousands and thousands of hours into making this vessel.
“We have 12,500 bottles taken directly from the trash in San Francisco. The main frame, the superstructure, is also made out of PET. Both the masts are made from old irrigation pipe that we took and reconditioned for this purpose. The grey on the sail is also made 100 percent out of post-consumer plastic bottles. We found a company in Asia. They said it wasn’t possible. They are now making post-consumer plastic sails as their business.
“We then had to put the boat together. But we couldn’t find a glue that was suitable for the project. We didn’t want to go out and make this amazing boat and stick it together with a really noxious epoxy resin, which is what you usually get with building glue,” de Rothschild said. “So we engineered a new glue made of cashew nuts and sugar.
“One of the big takeaways is that most people always say ‘no’ before they even actually understand. They just say no. It is just too complicated. We all do it. It is called taking the path of least resistance. At that point it is easy to say ‘okay, cool that doesn’t work’ and walk away. Or you can ring them up every day and say ‘please just try.’ That is what we did. We pestered them. Finally, they were so annoyed that just to get rid of us; they would give it a try. Then they would be like, ‘hey, this works.’
“The portholes, wenches, little locks, stays and guide wires were the only things we actually bought. And they were the only things that broke. The stuff we made survived,” he said.
Having started out as a dream, been built by curiosity and determination, then sailed across the Pacific Ocean, the true legacy of the Plastiki may yet to be realized.
“Did the Plastiki do what it was meant to do? Well, technically no. It failed from the point of view that we didn’t stop people using single use plastics,” de Rothschild said. “We didn’t stop plastics ending up in our oceans.
“On the other side it really succeeded from the point of view that it became much bigger than us. It became a story that so many people around the world started to use the metaphor ‘What’s your Plastiki?’ People would interpret that in any way. What it means is anything is possible. I call it the equation of curiosity. No matter where you come from, no matter where you are going, you are all at this point in your life probably much more curious than we are as adults. That curiosity is the breeding ground for dreams. And those dreams are the breeding grounds for adventures. And those adventures are the breeding grounds for stories. And those stories inspire more dreams.
“The Plastiki is as much mine as it is yours,” he said. “Today is the first day the Plastiki has really been shown on display since we finished the voyage three years ago. It’s taken a lot of logistics to get out here. She is going to stay in Dallas and hopefully continue her life as an inspiration.
“If we can build a boat out of plastic bottles and sail across the Pacific, then you guys can do anything you want to do.
“The Plastiki is now a Texan. I had a number of conversations with a lot of people, and it transpired that Dallas and the community here would be really embracing and open to it. And it is evident in the fact that you guys have turned up on your weekend to see this,” de Rothschild said.
De Rothschild chose to donate Plastiki to the Urban Innovation Lab for Youth, an open-access center that is scheduled to be built next year in downtown Dallas. Conceptualized by the Hunts in 2006, this cooperative venture will target 12- to 24-year-olds to augment interpersonal problem-solving skills and collaboration efforts, with support from innovative technologies and guidance from a variety of mentors. The Hunts’ ROi Project team will spearhead the project’s development in partnership with SMU, Paul Quinn College and bcWorkshop in Dallas, the University of Oxford, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Some information provided by the Hunt Institute.