I’m blogging today from atop a pile of junk floating in Apia harbor. Really.
Of course, the pile of junk has been painstakingly crafted into the form of a 60-foot catamaran named the Plastiki. Made of approximately 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, the boat is sailing from San Francisco to Sydney – over a route of more than 11,000 nautical miles – to focus attention on the huge amount of waste that we humans dump into the oceans.
Of particular concern are single-use plastic bags, single-use water bottles, and polystyrene foam products in the form of disposable food serviceware and packaging. Such items are manufactured and then tossed away in immense quantities. In the U.S. alone, for example, an estimated 100 billion plastic bags are used – and discarded – every year.
Plastiki expedition leader David de Rothschild tells me that there are an estimated 100 million tons of plastic floating in Earth’s waters. That’s 200,000,000,000 pounds. Or the equivalent of about 13 million elephants. I have never seen 13 million elephants floating in the ocean – maybe because that’s 20 times the number of elephants actually left on Earth these days – but I know it’s not natural. And certainly not good.
Plastic bags can kill or maim wildlife, particularly in the sea. It takes 1,000 years or more for many kinds of plastic to degrade, and the plastic leaches chemicals into the environment throughout that millenium. Plastic breaks into small pieces which aquatic animals mistake for food. I’m told that polystyrene is a non-biodegradable substance for which there is no feasible method of recycling.
The goal of the Plastiki voyage is two-fold. First, to make more people aware of the damage caused by one-use culture. Second, to demonstrate that waste is actually a valuable resource that can be put to a variety of desirable – and indeed sophisticated – uses. The crew of the Plastiki is certainly making both points with heart and flair.
My new friend David explains that the boat is about as green as it gets. In addition to being built from trash, it has no engines and derives the energy used on board from renewable sources. Even the parts of the boat that don’t look like bottles are crafted from recycled materials. Probing for compromises in the enviro ethos, I asked about glue — and I was pleased to learn that the glue used in construction was made from nut husks and sugar.
The Plastiki took about two years to build, and its voyage is sponsored by David’s group Ecology Adventure.
I particularly enjoyed seeing the boat’s cabin – a compact space with berths for the crew, a galley, communications bay, and other amenities. I noticed the book Fishing for Dummies on a shelf, and David explained that the crew has in fact been feeding itself in part by fishing. I also noticed, aptly, a copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s classic book about the Kon-Tiki expedition.
San Francisco and Sydney are fitting bookends for the Plastiki voyage. The two have been sister cities since 1968, and they are both good citizens of the Pacific focused aggressively on reducing waste, protecting the marine environment, and crafting less destructive human lifestyles.
I’m not sure that I would hold up under the heat of the ocean sun the whole way from my home state of California, but today I’m certainly having a great time. I might just stay onboard, if the skipper agrees to tack close enough to New Zealand for me to swim ashore at Cape Reinga.