On March 20th, an unusual vessel set sail from San Francisco on a voyage across the Pacific. Skippered by adventurer and millionaire banking scion David de Rothschild, the Plastiki is a 60-foot catamaran made from—among other things—12,500 recycled plastic bottles, and rigged with masts of reclaimed irrigation piping. De Rothschild is hoping that his planned 100-day voyage will raise awareness of the threat that plastic waste poses to our oceans, and the possibilities presented by employing recycled materials.
I want to like this project: it’s creative, it’s courageous, its heart is in the right place. The issues it’s highlighting are important, and of real consequence to the earth’s oceans. But I’m conflicted. As a full-length article in The New Yorker (subscription required for full article) makes clear, this isn’t as simple as a bunch of friends building a boat out of used bottles and setting sail across the ocean. (That’s already been done, by The Junk Raft, which sailed from Long Beach, CA to Hawaii in 2008). De Rothschild seems committed to the idea that the only way to raise awareness of any value is through a highly produced, incredibly expensive project—with corporate sponsors at IWC Watches and HP computers along for the ride. Then there’s the construction of the boat itself, which seems to blur the line between ‘recyceld’ to ‘recyclable.’ It’s great they’re using those materials, but is it worth the energy—and the very real carbon emissions and waste that result? It’s a bit like the Prius: the fuel economy may be better, but you have to wonder if that ever offsets the impact of its a batteries and construction. And in the end, I wonder, does it really make sense—good, world-changing design sense, I mean—to make a boat out of plastic bottles? Is it designed for sustainability or publicity? As Mike Rose, one of the boat’s builders, is quoted as saying, “We’re deliberately building something that’s stupid.”
If you want to change the world, you have to inspire people. And my hat goes off to de Rothschild for his audacity and commitment to his project. But I have trouble reconciling the potential positive impact with Plastiki’s construction. It raises a question: how much awareness do you have to raise to offset the impact of doing the trip in the first place?
At what point does it become an eco-stunt?