The Voyage of the Plastiki

We’ve all heard the “recycle, reduce, reuse” mantra.  However, to really combat the current problem of overconsumption and reduce unnecessary waste, this saying should be flipped on its head: “reduce, reuse, recycle.”  Recycling is reactive, and society needs to combine it with a proactive solution, because recycling alone will not “fix” our current consumption problem.  The first step should be reducing initial resource use, which has skyrocketed in recent years.

According to the Sierra Club (via CNN), between the 1950s and the 1990s, the worldwide use of plastic quintupled, and developed countries such as America are leading the way in that consumption.  As an example of this trend, the same article reported that in 2007 one American consumed as many resources as 35 Indians.

Environmental activists are calling attention to these gross numbers in a variety of ways. One interesting example is the voyage of the Plastiki, a 60-foot boat constructed from 12,500 recycled plastic bottles and powered by solar panels and windmills.  On March 20, the six man (technically five man, one woman) crew of the Plastiki set sail from San Francisco Bay, heading toward Sydney, Australia – 11,000 miles away.  As of June 11th, 2010, the Plastiki’s crew was preparing to embark on the last leg of their journey, from the island of Samoa to Sydney, where they are expected to land in early July.  At that point, the small ship had traversed more than 5,500 nautical miles of Pacific Ocean.

The Plastiki’s philosophy, as stated on the project website, revolves around the idea that waste is a fundamental design flaw (in that it does not occur in nature) and that we need to rethink the concept of waste to use it as a resource.  It is also about undertaking what the team dubs a “Planet 2.0 way of thinking and acting.”  The voyage is meant to draw attention to current environmental issues, such as bottled water and plastic waste.  The idea was first conceived approximately four years ago by banking heir David de Rothschild following a UNEP report, “Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas,” that outlined the serious threat that pollution – especially plastics – poses for our planet’s oceans.

According to the project’s website, plastic makes up between 40 and 60 percent of the world’s marine waste and contributes largely to such environmental atrocities as the Great Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch – a collection of North American and Asian garbage that is trapped in the upper water columns of the Pacific and is estimated to be approximately twice the size of Texas.  De Rothschild, the expedition’s leader, shared this account from the journey on the project’s website:

“When we look underneath the boat, the hull is covered in a fine, extra layer of plastic and as you run your hand across your face you see countless molecular size plastic fragments, known as mermaid’s tears. It is tragic. From above, the oceans still looks beautiful and untouched but just below the surface is this toxic stew that could quickly end up on our dinner plates. The issue is far more ominous than people imagine, as these commonly known ‘garbage patches’ are not just floating islands of trash but a swirling poisonous soup. The problem is subsurface – tiny pieces of material in the process of breaking down and floating in the top layer of the ocean where most species live, feed and breed.”

Hopefully extreme examples such as this will make us think a bit more about our actions and how they impact the environment.  Do you need that plastic water bottle?  Can you use a reusable coffee cup instead of a new plastic one every day?  Is bringing food to work in reusable Tupperware really more difficult than disposable plastic bags?  If you give it a little thought you will see that there are easy things that everyone can do to reduce resource use.  All it takes is a small attitude adjustment and a little bit of effort.

Lillian Dunlap

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