Walloping worldwide wastes

Gone are the days of returning glass bottles to a nearby shop to get back the deposit after drinking to the last dredge of Coca-cola or Pepsi or the made-in-Bangladesh drinks. With the onrush of PET bottles the drink giants or bottled water companies have resorted to use more and more plastic containers. Though recyclable these light bottles have flooded the whole world, posing threats to our environment and the mother earth at large. The worldwide and large scale productions, use and dumping have become causes of concern in countries. Their rampant production, like other productions responsible for carbon emissions, is also substantially contributing to the rise in temperature. The bushfire in Russia, flood in Pakistan and losing vast track of land going under water on Bangladesh’s part are a few results of the climatological change.
We have reasons and data to believe that western nations mainly responsible for the reckless rises in carbon emissions though the researchers are shaky in attributing to the cause to them in fear of wearing off funds for their climate research.
When paid climatologists are hesitating to hold the western nations as well as some rising Asian powers like India and China responsible for high carbon emissions a group of western green activists resorted to scavenge the plastic bottles dumped in the dustbins or other places. To make a ship the creative environmentalists collected thousands of bottles dumped after drinking. They made it and travelled 8000 nautical miles on it from San Francisco to Sydney. They called the bottle boat ‘Plastiki’ which had from water purifier to batteries and from the mast to hull everything made from recyclable wastes. Among the life enhancing additions the boat had also a plastic cabin to accommodate 10 members — Skipper Jo Royle, Co-Skipper David Thomson, expedition leader David de Rothschild, Olav Heyerdahl, Graham Hill, Luca Babini, Matthew Grey, Max Jourdan, Singeli Agnew and Vern Moen. All of whom have witnessed the Great Eastern Garbage patch — the polluted waters of the Pacific during their four-month journey, affirming their mission to share their experience with the watching world and most importantly highlight solutions to protect our oceans and beat waste.
The Plastiki crew detailed their saga during their sail from San Francisco to Sydney which was widely covered by media across the planet. While we waited in May 2008 for the roll of material to arrive we busied ourselves with the small matter of sourcing, cleaning and filling over 10,000 bottles. Our first stop was Waste Management CA, who were happy to help but could only supply us with crushed, unsorted bottles. We had made a considerable rod for our own backs by deciding to use only clear two-litre bottles. We had to wade through these huge debris boxes picking out only usable bottles that constituted about 25% of the total volume. Waste Management soon tired of delivering bottles when we kept on asking them to take the majority away again. You want these bottles or not said Jim the driver with a rakish grin. Nevertheless, we had more than enough to be getting on with; first we washed, rinsed and de-labelled paying special attention for cracks and punctures. It was a difficult, smelly and time consuming job and we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the dedicated crew who ploughed through them over so many days and months.
The next step was filling the bottles with 12 grams of dry ice, a number arrived at by blowing up more than a few “sample” bottles. 12 grams was just enough to make the bottle in-compressible but not so much as to deform it into a grotesque bulging time bomb. Everyday we had to collect enough dry ice for the day’s filling. Anything left overnight would be gone by morning; sublimated un-captured back into the air. Dry ice typically comes in blocks or pellets so we had to pound it into a powder before we could daintily measure out the allotted 12 grams. Next we capped the bottles with new caps and sealed them with a big blob of hot glue. The bottles and the caps are usually different plastics so must be separated during recycling. The process that is used requires the bottles and caps to be shredded and immersed in water. The PET bottle flakes sink and the polyethylene cap flakes float to the surface where they can be scooped off. We were careful to use polyethylene hot glue with the same chemical properties as the caps so as not to disrupt the recycling process.
Also at this time we concerned ourselves with the more global issues of how exactly we would process (heat) the material on a homemade, yet semi industrial scale. Ultimately we had to figure out how to make panels big enough to make a 60 ft boat from. The panels would be made up of a lightweight foam core “skinned” on both sides with srPET. Instead of making the whole panel from solid srPET, which would be prohibitively expensive and heavy we could “migrate” the strength to the outside faces and use a lightweight filler in the middle. This too had to be sourced. It needed to be 100% PET so as to be recyclable and capable of being heat bonded to the skins so as to avoid using any contaminating glues. The goal was to make a 100% PET composite panel with as few processes as possible and without glue.
We found suitable foam and the thinking went a bit like this: unroll high temperature resistant plastic on table, this will form part of a vacuum bag. On top of plastic unroll two to six layers of srPET material. Next lay the foam core on the layers of fabric, the thickness of the foam would also vary depending on the strength required. Then unroll the corresponding number of layers of fabric that were put on the underside onto the top of the foam, and finally unroll the second layer of high temperature plastic on top of everything. The two pieces of plastic top and bottom are sealed together using a putty tape and a vacuum tube inserted. The air is removed thereby creating a vacuum and clamping all the layers of the cake firmly together. Next add heat. Four hundred degrees Fahrenheit to be exact. Four hundred degrees is the heat at which the matrix fibres will melt but not the high tenacity fibres. Apply enough heat over the correct period of time in order to melt the skin to the foam core, but not so much heat that you melt the reinforcing fibres which would render the panel useless. We would conduct this merry dance by inserting thermometer probes into the panel.
The aim of what we were doing now was ultimately to produce test panels that could be sent off and be assessed for strength. The results of these tests would only then render the data that Andy would require to design the boat. In fact after only some very rudimentary testing we placed our fist big order of srPET. The materials arrived and we resorted to make the boat.
The Plastiki was nothing if not ambitious. We wanted bicycles that would generate electricity, a hydroponic garden, water stills, vacuum de-salinators, a composting toilet, solar panels, wind turbines, regenerative electric propulsion, satellite communications and pretty much anything else that constituted an innovative sustainable “system”. She was to be a floating showroom of non-emitting futurist ideas that were simple, elegant and wholly attainable.
Our concept architect, Michael Pawlyn, had set us firmly on this road, seeding a whole range of ideas in his iconic white pen on brown paper sketches. Like so many other things with this boat all we had to do now was figure out how to make them and ergonomically integrate them into the structure.
Hand in hand with the systems ran the cabin. The jewel in the Plastiki crown; suspended in mid air between the two hulls and typically referred to as “the pod”. For the design of the cabin we turned to Architecture for Humanity and Nathaniel Corum. The brief ran a little like this: a replicable structure that can be dismounted and “re-used” in a disaster situation in order to provide timely shelter. One idea was that the cabin panels could be made from recycled plastic and fashioned with a commonality in mind that would allow them to be re-assembled into a geodesic self supporting structure no matter where they might be found in the world. A kind of relief Lego utilising ubiquitous worldwide waste.
The design morphed wonderfully from egg into angular triangular stealth dome. Dimensions were carefully pushed and pulled to accommodate heads and shoulders, feet and toes. Consideration was given to water catchment, port holes, ventilation, solar panels and all kinds of other life enhancing additions. It was like the Ferrari with all the extras.
Part of the design process was outsourced to the architect students of UCLA which turned out to be a fascinating and highly rewarding exchange of ideas. In fact, I think the cabin probably wins on all those fronts. The design we had, the wherewithal to build it on the other hand, not so much… 144 individual triangular panels, 864 unique angles and no internal structure to build off; we were masochists at every turn, slaves to our own un-bended ambition and we loved it.
The desire was to make it akin to a seamless jelly mould. A 30ft by 15ft self- supporting jelly mould that people would look at and wonder how? The plan was to build a replica in wood which would itself become the mould for the mould – no easy task in itself and as it turned out, a full two months work. The second stage: of applying the srPET was less well understood and not entirely surprisingly as our understanding of the material at this point was still very limited. The principal based on our then understanding of the material was as follows: seal wooden mould so that it is airtight. Drape srPET cloth over the mould. Cut foam triangles as per the design and arrange them on the mould. Drape layers of cloth over foam triangles. Cover everything in high temperature vacuum bag and vacuum. Incidentally, the purpose of the vacuuming stage is not only to clamp everything together but to stop the material from shrivelling into a ball with the introduction of heat. Heat was next. We would take our heaters and somehow suspend them four inches above the material passing over the surface of the mould inches at a time in order to melt and consolidate the plastic into the monolithic structure that would become the cabin. Sound difficult? It was.
But in the interests of progress we decided to build the wooden mould anyway on the basis that “it would be needed” and worry about the practicalities of suspending 40lb heaters 10ft in the air when we came to it. The Plastiki is completely made of recyclable products – the hull and structure are made from recycled plastic bottles; the masts are ex-irrigation piping and the rigging is stainless steel that can be recycled. If so desired, the entire vessel could be recycled after the expedition. Everything was ready and the boat to be put to water. From San Francisco it sailed through the Great Eastern Garbage patch, doing science along the way and inspiring people to look at Waste as a Resource. It set out to create carbon consciousness among the citizens across the countries. The crews wanted a change in habit of the people across the world.
During the journey managing the energy on board has been one of mine and Mr. T’s most challenging jobs. We rely 100% on renewable sources, the two primary sources being solar and wind. Obviously, during the daylight hours, we are hoping for sunshine and the boat to be pointing in the right direction to minimise shade on the solar arrays. In the evening, we are wanting a breeze of 11 to 20 knots, for the music of the wind gens to really get pumping.
It has been interesting to watch everyone really struggle to get to grips with when to charge and how to minimise power usage. For example, we need to charge all cameras, notebooks, iPods, flashlights, run the Fleet comms dome and make phone calls; all as the solar panels start to absorb the sun’s energy. This way we will have everything fully charged by midday and we can spend the rest of the day topping up to float the batteries, and make necessary afternoon comms. Music is a luxury, but we can pedal fast on the bike to provide extra power. We can only use the lights we need, and we need to keep a constant eye on the items on charge to ensure we unplug them as soon as they are fully charged.
The Plastiki and crew have reached the end of their epic voyage which has taken them through the Pacific Ocean on an 8,000 nautical mile adventure lasting over 130 days! The team arrived midday at Sydney’s Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour to an excited crowd of friends, family and supporters. You can see all the photos from the arrival and event.
The expedition reminds us of Thor Heyerdahls Kon-Tiki mission and his Creative Retreat / Eco-Guest House high in the mountains of Andaluc. Here are some of their initiatives which make their retreat a great carbon conscious break away from home…
We are off-grid so we make our own power from the sun and the wind. We make hot water with solar panels. We harvest rainwater from the roof storing it in a vast underground deposit.
We heat the house in winter with bio-mass. We recycle black water from our toilets by treating the waste water in reed beds and use the clean water to irrigate new trees for coppice and bio-mass. We recycle grey water from our basins and showers to irrigate an orchard for fruit. We compost our kitchen waste.
We recycle everything. We buy locally produced food.
Best of all we run courses on art and ecology to teach a deep ecological perspective on sustainability!


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