The Plastiki, is a unique catamaran made of over 12,000 plastic bottles and many other recycled and recyclable components.  It was commissioned for an awareness-raising expedition across the Pacific by Adventure Ecology.

The Plastiki set off from San Francisco on March 20, 2010, for a voyage that will take it across the Pacific to Sydney, Australia.  Along the way they are stopping by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and investigating endangered coral reefs  This is the area in the North Pacific Ocean that is polluted with millions of tiny pieces of plastic.  It covers an area larger than the state of Texas.  Here you can watch a video of Robin Williams on board the Plastiki before they set sail.  The expedition’s leader David de Rothschild (yep, he’s one of those Rothschilds) explains how the plastic breaks into little tiny bits.  In these garbage gyres, there’s more plastic than plankton by weight.

The vessel itself was designed in accordance with the Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy.  This school of design views waste as a design flaw and seeks to mimic biological systems as much as possible.  Cradle-to-Cradle probably warrants its own post here as I am a huge fan of its revolutionary approach.  (Can’t wait?  Watch this TED talk by C-to-C co-founder William McDonough)

In line with this philosophy, they have a hydroponic garden, composting toilet, energy-producing bicycles, desalinator and reusable cabin.  What’s more, the sails and the superstructure are made of self-reinforcing PET.  This is a plastic material that works like fiberglass – it has fibrous layers and a substrate – but which can be recycled because it’s all the same material.  PET is a plastic regularly used to make bottles and it is one of the easier plastics to recycle.  It’s the “1” in the recycling identification code system.

I believe I mentioned the 12,000 bottles that make up the hull.  It’s an ingenious design that balances tensile and compression forces.  Each bottle is filled with dry ice to keep it pressurized and then they are packed within the superstructure.  You can watch Michael Pawlyn, one of the architects who designed Plastiki, talk about the how biomimicry guided the design (he really gets into the design philosophy around 7 minutes into the first video).  You can also read about it, if you’d prefer, in this article with accompanying photo gallery on CNN.  He was inspired by the egg carriers they use in Japan and pomegranate seeds.

You can explore all aspects of the vessel in a Flash 3D interface.  many of the features described have videos that play along with them.  It is really nicely done and fun to play around with, although some of the zooming around can be nauseating.  Just like being on the boat!

You might notice the web design on the Plastiki and Adventure Ecology’s sites is practically identical.  The Plastiki’s site holds a real wealth of information, but the all the Flash sours the experience for me.  For one,  I use flashblock, so the whole design is broken until I start clicking on things.  Then, there’s accessibility issues with Flash.  I’m not impressed with the usability of things like the interior scroll bars, either.

What are examples of awesome design are the explanatory pictures at the bottom.  They’re good enough to frame.

The expedition has already made landfall on the Line Islands.  From there they will continue on to their final destination in Sydney.  You can follow a live satellite tracker feed of the progress of the voyage on their website here.  It is similar to the SPOT messenger that we used on Tocayo.  You can also see videos that they made (and sent via email) while they were under way on their flickr page.

CNN has also devoted a whole page of special coverage to the expedition.  I’m not sure if that is a sponsorship deal or just CNN being friendly (and getting some greenwashing in there at the same time).

I went through a brief period of infatuation with the skipper, Jo Royle.  You can imagine the extraordinary appeal of an attractive, conscientious woman who is also a world-class sailor.  Then I heard her speak, and it totally ruined it for me.  The combination of her accent and voice is really grating on my ears.  Sorry, Jo!  I guess it wasn’t meant to be.

I edited and significantly extended the wikipedia article on the Plastiki.  Through that I found out that David de Rothschild is famous in Britain as an environmentalist.  He is applauded and derided much in the same way Al Gore is over here.  Some people said that this whole expedition was nothing more than a publicity stunt.  I think that the development of the technology alone makes it more than that.  But if the publicity stunt draws attention to the crisis of ocean pollution, I’m all for that too.  I don’t really care which personalities attach themselves to the project as long as it works.

Plus, I feel a kinship with Mr. de Rothschild.  I mean, we’ve got those same dashing good looks, we’re both from Jewish families, we both like sailing, and we’re both ridiculously wealthy.  Okay, maybe not so much the last one.  But, we both care about the future of the ocean and our fragile world.  Anyone who is trying to make a positive difference on that front is on my team.

Thanks to CT, who tipped me off to the existence of the Plastiki before it set sail.  This post has been a long time coming.