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Plastic-bottle catamaran to send eco-message

A ship made of plastic bottles? That would be the Plastiki, designed to sail the Pacific on an 11,000-mile voyage highlighting the dangers of living in a throwaway world.
Bottle Ship
A small mock-up of the "Plastiki" sits behind visitors learning about the project from David de Rothschild last March in San Francisco, Calif.Ben Margot / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

You've heard of a ship in a bottle. How about a ship made of plastic bottles? That would be the Plastiki, designed to sail the Pacific on an 11,000-mile voyage highlighting the dangers of living in a throwaway world.

"Waste is fundamentally a design flaw. We wanted to design a vessel that would epitomize waste being used as a resource," said expedition leader David de Rothschild.

The boat is named in honor of the 1947 Kon-Tiki raft sailed across the Pacific by explorer Thor Heyerdahl, an ocean adventure that inspired de Rothschild.

There's a bit more of a tie-in. One of the Plastiki team members is Josian Heyerdahl, the explorer's granddaughter.

An environmental scientist who works on business sustainability issues, Heyerdahl, 25, became part of the project after reading about it and introducing herself to de Rothschild.

She's enthusiastic about the idea of using adventure to engage people's attention in rethinking trash.

"I've witnessed firsthand how the story of the Kon-Tiki and other adventure stories have really inspired people to take on tasks that they thought were somewhat impossible or inspired them to do something that they really believed in," she said.

Plans are for skipper Jo Royle and de Rothschild to sail the whole way from California to Australia, while other crew members will rotate. Heyerdahl plans to join the boat for the last leg of the journey as the Plastiki heads toward Sydney Harbor.

2-liter bottles a challenge
Turning thousands of reclaimed 2-liter bottles into a sailing vessel isn't a simple task. The launch date, which had been scheduled earlier this year, had to be pushed back to late this year because of the challenges of working with a new material.

The Plastiki is planned as a 60-foot catamaran with the hulls made of a rigid plastic structure forming compartments in which about 10,000 empty bottles are flattened and stacked to make it float.

Project manager Matthew Grey said the hulls are partially completed and the next step is bonding the various elements of the boat together.

Just how much longer it will take to complete the catamaran is uncertain, he said, because "we are dealing on a daily basis with so many unknowns."

On Friday, the Plastiki team plans to announce a partnership with Hewlett-Packard Co., which is providing technology for the voyage as well as the Plastiki Mission Control Center at Pier 45.

At the center, there will be a number of interactive displays and exhibits, including computer screens that visitors can touch to track the Plastiki's progress and send text messages.

"We see it as really a great educational opportunity and a very interactive place where people are coming to learn and enjoy and kind of get a taste of what Plastiki's all about," said Steven Hoffman, HP's director of worldwide marketing.

Geodesic dome for housing
The crew will be housed in a geodesic dome, topped by solar panels, and will have such creature comforts as bunks, solar shower and compost toilet.

The boat is fully recyclable, part of the mission to find ways to reuse plastics.

An artist's rendering shows what the Plastiki will look like, if its flotation system holds up.Adventure Ecology Ltd.

"What we have to do is realign our understanding of the material," said de Rothschild, a descendant of the well-known British banking family, who founded Adventure Ecology, which stages expeditions to raise awareness of environmental issues.

During the Plastiki voyage, the crew plans to document planetary pollution, from huge patches of floating ocean debris to fallout from nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll to the effects of climate change.

They'll keep in touch and get their navigational and meteorological data through HP laptops as well as a satellite phone. Power will come from 12-volt batteries charged by wind turbines and solar panels.

The Plastiki isn't the only vessel highlighting the perils of plastic.

Last summer, Marcus Eriksen and Joel Paschal sailed from Long Beach to Hawaii on a raft made of 15,000 plastic bottles and the fuselage of a Cessna 310, part of the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation's project called "JUNK."