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Boat made of plastic bottles sets sail

Business | November 1, 2010 | By:

An epic voyage highlights the environmental problems of plastic bottles—and some possible solutions.

Australian billionaire James Packer’s $30 million Z Sydney cruiser (replacing his $50 million Z Ellerston super yacht, sold last year) is an impressive sight as it glides through the waters of Sydney Harbor. On July 26, 2010, a very different but equally impressive boat sailed into Sydney Harbour. The Plastiki, made from 12,500 plastic bottles, traveled from San Francisco to Sydney over a four-month period. The brainchild of environmental adventurer David de Rothschild, and skippered by Jo Royle, the expedition set out to highlight the environmental problems being caused by the use of plastic bottles.

The idea of setting sail in a boat made from plastic bottles probably conjures up notions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer adventuring along the Mississippi. The saga does have something of a “Boy’s Own Paper” adventure about it, but it is also one that carries a strong environmental message.

David de Rothschild, head of Adventure Ecology, an expedition group raising awareness about climate change, decided that he had to do something to draw attention to this issue after reading a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report highlighting the impact that plastic waste is having on our oceans. An estimated eight million pieces of marine garbage are believed to enter the oceans each day, and more than half of this comes from ships. In Ian Connacher’s award-winning documentary “Addicted to Plastic: The Rise and Demise of a Modern Miracle,” he films the gyre located in one of the most remote areas of ocean in the world. This stretch of ocean in the Pacific has become a repository for debris, a large portion of it plastic and much of it intact, reinforcing the fact that this is not a material that will degrade naturally. De Rothschild started thinking about finding ways that would allow the problem to become the solution. He also realized the need to bring about greater public awareness of the issue—and set about accomplishing both tasks with the Plastiki project.

Blending nature and technology

Biomimetics is the use of design from nature to solve problems. It’s an area of research that has provided many innovative solutions to the technical textile industry, from hook-and-loop systems used for dispersing seeds as an inspiration for Velcro® to the lotus leaf as a blueprint for nanotech dirt-repellent coatings, or bamboo and honeycomb bases for composite structures.

Michael Pawlyn, director of Exploration Architecture, London, was involved in the concept design for the boat. The initial idea examined the Japanese way of securing eggs by tightly packing them under compression. This method did not prove ideal, but the design team then went on to look at the individual segments of a pomegranate, which combine internal compression and gaps filled with pith surrounded with a tough outer skin, resulting in a lightweight and highly resilient form. Some of the final ideas used on the Plastiki stemmed from this, such as the pressurization of plastic bottles to make them solid. While the compressed bottles worked extremely well for buoyancy, another solution was needed for the structural elements, deck and cabin. Biomimetics often acts as inspiration, but these ideas ultimately have to come together with engineering and materials know-how. The boat design and construction was taken up by naval architect Andy Dovell, Dovell Naval Architects Pty. Ltd., NSW, Australia; the Bender Brothers, San Francisco, Calif. (Matthew Grey, expedition coordinator); with Seretex™ srPET (self-reinforced polyethylene terephthalate) from Smarter Plan LLC, also based in San Francisco.

New traditions

The boat design harkens back to traditional Polynesian voyaging catamarans that used twigs bundled together, and also to Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl’s epic 1947 expedition on the Kon-Tiki and the book he wrote about his experiences: “Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft.” Looking around the boat, Architecture for Humanity’s design solution of using flat panels for the cabin is evident. The design references Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic domes; and although the Plastiki living quarters do curve, on close inspection they can be seen as comprised of flat panels made of srPET, made from recycled plastic soft drink bottles.

The design and engineering challenge for core structural elements such as Plastiki’s beams, deck and living quarters was in finding a solution based on recycled plastic bottles. The answer was a new material: srPET from Seretex.

The potential for recycled plastic bottles to become textiles first came to public attention in the early 1990s when the sportswear company Patagonia introduced its PET fleece fabrics. Both lightweight and warm, these fabrics have proven very popular with consumers. Plastiki uses srPET. The bottles are used in two forms but remain a monomaterial that can be recycled. The first acts as a fiber and the second a resin, so that when heated the resin element bonds the material. When combined, they offer a material very similar to a medium-grade fiberglass in terms of performance. The design of a boat using any new material is bound up with both opportunity and challenges. Because srPET must be cured under high pressure and at a high temperature, curved shapes using molds are difficult, especially at large scale. In the final design, elements, including the curved cabin, are comprised of flat panels hand-welded together using a tape of the same material. The result is a substance that can be recycled and turned into another boat, while the bottles can be recycled into fleece for garments.

Plastiki set sail from San Francisco, a city that has banned the use of plastic grocery bags, and traveled 8,398 nautical miles over 128 days. The boat and crew passed through what the team refer to as the North Pacific Garbage Patch (the gyre filmed in “Addicted to Plastic.”) Estimated by Greenpeace to be the size of Texas, it is home to a vast quantity of chemical waste and other debris, much of it plastic. Passing from there through the Line Islands in the central Pacific south of Hawaii, the damage cased by pollution to the delicate ecosystem in one of the world’s most remote coral reef atolls is evident. Last stop before approaching the northern shores of Australia is the tiny island nation of Tuvalu. The people here are already experiencing the devastating effects of global warming as their islands are literally sinking.

Plastiki arrived in Sydney’s Darling Harbor on July 26, 2010, where the crew and designers engaged in many public and education awareness events, including Waste in the City at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). “While the successful and safe arrival of the Plastiki into Sydney may mark the end of the actual expedition, it also marks the start of arguably the most important and critical chapter in the Plastiki’s mission to beat waste: a chapter of change,” David de Rothschild told reporters. “It’s change that can dramatically shift our daily habits away from an unnecessary and destructive addiction to single-use plastics, but even more importantly and urgently, a change in attitudes towards understanding, valuing and protecting one of our planet’s most precious and important natural systems, our oceans.”

Dovell is passionate about the success of the Plastiki both in raising awareness about the problem of plastic bottles and in instigating changes in behaviour. He’s also enthusiastic about the great potential of srPET in design applications: he’s already looking at surf fins for surf boards and sea kayaks as ideal applications where it could not just work well, but also replace a less environmentally friendly material. A new material with strong environmental credentials: for a designer: it doesn’t get much better than that.

Marie O’Mahony is professor of advanced textiles for fashion design at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), Australia. Her DesignMasters (TechnoTextiles) course will launch in 2011.

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