Message in a Bottle: David de Rothschild’s Oceanic Eco-crusade

by John Colapinto, The New Yorker; April 6, 2009.

What on earth is a billionaire doing cruising the Pacific on a bottleboat named Plastiki? To find the answer to that question requires a bit of history and a bit of imagination.

In 1947, the Kon-Tiki set sail across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to Polynesia on a demonstration voyage to show that tribes from South America could have crossed the ocean and settled the Polynesian islands. Now fast-forward to 2009, when a sixty-foot bottle-boat called the Plastiki was named in Kontiki’s honour. Get it? Plastiki is attempting to go where no bottle-boat crew has gone before by setting sail from San Francisco to Sydney as part of an eco-crusade. The expedition’s driving force is David de Rothschild, the 31-year-old environmentalist and billionaire heir to the European banking fortune. According to de Rothschild, the innovation at the heart of the venture is to build a ship made entirely of recyclable plastics, producing its own energy and generating zero noxious emissions. With the Plastiki, de Rothschild hopes to revolutionise shipbuilding.

The endeavour has already hit stormy waters. First, financial costs have run high without any assurance of practical uptake by the shipping industry. Second, the materials themselves have a heavy environmental price tag. The team has created the ship’s catamaran hulls from 12,000 water bottles – an odd choice given that the bottles themselves are an obvious luxury. Peter Singer (see book review below) has asked in earlier writings how we can buy bottled water when a virtually identical alternative is available for free. Why not turn on the tap when you’re thirsty and send the saved money to the one out of every six people on the planet who don’t have access to safe drinking water?

Third, the originality of the expedition itself is in question. It turns out that de Rothschild’s bottle-boat eco-crusade is not unique. In 2008, another environmentalist, Dr Marcus Eriksen, sailed a bottle-boat made from 15,000 plastic bottles from California to Hawaii. Both men wanted to claim the name ‘Plastiki’, but eventually Eriksen settled on the name ‘Junk Raft’ for his vessel. Both men also want to raise concerns about the deluge of plastic floating on our oceans.

The Junk Raft landed safely last year. If de Rothschild’s voyage is successful, perhaps you may see the Plastiki bobbing into Sydney Harbour sometime later this year. For more on the expedition see: theplastiki

For the complete article see: reporting/2009/04/06/090406fa_fact_colapinto

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