Photograph by Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

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The Plastiki arrives in Sydney.

Photograph by Brendon Thorne, Getty Images

Plastic Bottle Catamaran Completes Epic Pacific Crossing

The Plastiki—David de Rothschild’s recycled-bottle sailboat—safely reached Sydney harbor this week, marking the end of a unique 8,000-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean.

The Plastiki—David de Rothschild’s recycled-bottle sailboat—safely reached Sydney harbor yesterday, marking the end of a unique 128-day, 8,000-mile (12,900-kilometer) journey across the Pacific Ocean.

The catamaran was built with recycled and repurposed plastics, primarily 12,500 empty PET water bottles. Its unprecedented design had to be seaworthy, but the primary purpose was to show how smarter use of plastics can turn today’s trash into a viable, and valuable resource.

"Plastic is not the enemy,” said expedition leader and Adventure Ecology founder de Rothschild in the days just before Plastiki’s March 20 launch. “But it's our understanding of disposal and reuse that's to blame."

After departing San Francisco, Plastiki’s crew spent just over four months at sea on an arduous but exhilarating trek that covered more than 8,000 nautical miles, including stops at ocean pollution hotspots, before ending in Sydney Harbor on July 26.

Virtual adventurers from around the world joined the expedition via Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr, and blogs—all of which chronicled the four-month voyage.

From the dock in Sydney, British sailor Jo Royle, the Plastiki’s happy skipper, said she hoped the trip proved that the rethinking of plastic use can open up a new world of possibilities. She also said she hoped it highlighted the importance of the oceans to all.

“A lot of us don’t feel a connection to the sea and we live without realizing that every breath we take, every drop of water we drink is connected to the ocean whether we’re living in San Francisco or Idaho,” Royle said.

“I learned that ocean adventuring is as important now as it was when we were finding new lands, because we can experience our connection with the natural world of the oceans and then communicate that connection to others.”

Plastic, Plastic Everywhere

One of Plastiki’s primary destinations was the Eastern Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex of discarded and degrading plastics twice the size of Texas that floats in remote waters between California and Hawaii.

The patch epitomizes the plastic waste problem Plastiki was built to spotlight. Perhaps 10 percent of the 260 million tons of plastic produced each year end up in Earth’s oceans. All that single-use plastic has unknown effects that begin with the tiny organisms at the base of the ocean food chain. Better understood problems include the deaths of thousands of seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles that consume the floating trash.

De Rothschild is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. (National Geographic News is owned by the National Geographic Society) who christened his craft Plastiki in a nod to earlier seafaring legend. In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl sailed a reproduction Polynesian raft—the Kon-Tiki—from South America to Polynesia while testing his theories of ancient human migrations. Heyerdahl’s grandson, Olav, was part of the Plastiki crew.

The Plastiki made port in Kiribati, Western Samoa, and New Caledonia before reaching Australia. Her crew reported an ocean with far more evidence of human waste than Heyerdahl saw decades ago. According to the Plastiki crew, floating plastics were ubiquitous in even the most remote seas. They also reported far fewer signs of life.

“We’re not scientists but we were amazed that in the four months we spent in the middle of the ocean we saw four dolphins and three pilot whales,” Royal said. “I was so excited after reading Kon-Tiki about sharks following us and catching loads of fish, but that didn’t happen.”

Royle was quick to point out that Plastiki followed a very different route, and that without scientific studies on those waters no one could say whether they’ve really become more barren. “But we did sit in the middle of the Pacific for four months and we saw very little life,” she added

Plastiki’s unusual construction had raised more than a few doubts about its ability to withstand the rigors of such a Pacific crossing.

Her skipper said the ship’s unprecedented design was on her mind as Plastiki battled waves, wind, and weather in remote waters—though she came through with flying colors.

“It’s unusual because the material is so flexible,” Royle said. “I wondered how we would know if she had fatigued. In that respect it was in the back of my mind that we were dong something very unusual, but we had a lot of faith in the build. The material was very durable and she felt good and strong.”