August 3, 2010

As many listeners know, for the past several months, we’ve been following the voyage of the Plastiki, a catamaran constructed principally from recycled plastic water and soft drink bottles. Last week, the Plastiki landed in Sydney, Australia, after a 8000 nautical mile voyage that started in San Francisco. We have twice interviewed the Plastiki skipper, Jo Royle, and we’ll talk with again her tonight from dry land in Sydney.

Listen to the program.

Background on the Plastiki and Ocean Plastics

Here’s a news release that came out from the Plastiki project: 11.10am – Monday 26 July 2010 – Sydney time.  The headline reads: “Message in a bottle to beat waste has global impact to create change”

 After sailing more than 8,000 nautical miles and spending 128 days crossing the Pacific […]in a boat made of 12,500 plastic PET bottles [–PET stands for Polyethylene terephthalate, the stuff plastic soda bottles are made of], the Plastiki expedition and her crew have safely and successfully reached their planned destination of Sydney to cheers of welcome and support.

Arriving at Sydney Heads at 11.10am local time with a 12 knot south south easterly breeze, the Plastiki triumphantly sailed into Sydney Harbour to cheers of welcome and support from a small spectator flotilla.[…]The historic expedition was completed in four legs : San Francisco – Kiribati – Western Samoa – New Caledonia before reaching the Australian Coast (Mooloolaba) on Monday 19 July and continuing on to Sydney.

[Expedition leader David de Rothschild said,] “It’s an incredible feeling to finally arrive in Sydney. We had great faith in the design and construction of Plastiki and while many people doubted we’d make it, we have proved that a boat made from plastic bottles can stand up to the harsh conditions of the Pacific.” […]

[De Rothschild also] paid tribute to his fellow adventurers, Jo Royle (Skipper), David Thomson (Co-Skipper), Graham Hill (Founder of, Olav Heyerdahl [grandson of Kon Tiki rafter Thor Heyerdahl], Matthew Grey, Luca Babini (Photographer), Vern Moen (Myoo Media Film maker), Max Jourdan and Singeli Agnew (National Geographic Film makers) for their skill and commitment during the voyage.

Jo and the rest of the crew did a remarkable job sailing the Plastiki safely across the Pacific and it is due to their collective efforts that we’ve been able to raise global awareness of the issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.

 To give us further perspective on the problem of plastic in the oceans, we’ll quote from another source, Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. He has written that “Plastic is Drastic.”

There is a large part of the central Pacific Ocean that no one ever visits and only a few ever pass through. Sailors avoid it like the plague for it lacks the wind they need to sail. Fisherman leave it alone because its lack of nutrients makes it an oceanic desert. This area includes the “horse latitudes,” where stock transporters in the age of sail got stuck, ran out of food and water and had to jettison their horses and other livestock. Surprisingly, this is the largest ocean realm on our planet, being about the size of Africa- over ten million square miles. […]

Because of the stability of this gentle maelstrom, the largest uniform climatic feature on earth is also an accumulator of the debris of civilization. Anything that floats, no matter where it comes from on the north Pacific Rim or ocean, ends up here, sometimes after drifting around the periphery for twelve years or more. Historically, this debris did not accumulate because it was eventually broken down by microorganisms into carbon dioxide and water.

 [The place Captain Moore is describing is the called the Pacific Garbage Patch, where huge quanities of throwaway plastics accumulate, and the Plastiki expedition sailed quite close to it.]

Captain Charles Moore continues:

 Now, however, in our battle to store goods against natural deterioration, we have created a class of products that defeats even the most creative and insidious bacteria. They are plastics. Plastics are now virtually everywhere in our modern society. We drink out of them, eat off of them, sit on them, and even drive in them. They’re durable, lightweight, cheap, and can be made into virtually anything. But it is these useful properties of plastics, which make them so harmful when they end up in the environment. Plastics, like diamonds, are forever!

If plastic doesn’t biodegrade, what does it do? It “photo-degrades” – a process in which it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest. […] [In our research voyage out from Santa Barbara, we found] Everything from huge hawsers to tiny fragments [,forming into windrows that are] miles long[…].. We picked up hundreds of pounds of netting of all types bailed together in this system along with every type and size of debris imaginable.

Sometimes, windrows […] drift down over the Hawaiian Islands. That is when Waimanalo Beach on Oahu gets coated with blue green plastic sand, along with staggering amounts of larger debris. Farther to the northwest, at the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, monk seals, the most endangered mammal species in the United States, get entangled in debris, especially cheap plastic nets lost or discarded by the fishing industry. Ninety percent of Hawaiian green sea turtles nest here and eat the debris, mistaking it for their natural food, as do Laysan and Black Footed Albatross. Indeed, the stomach contents of Laysan Albatross look like the cigarette lighter shelf at a convenience store they contain so many of them.

It’s not just entanglement and indigestion that are problems caused by plastic debris, however. There is a darker side to pollution of the ocean by ubiquitous plastic fragments. As these fragments float around, they accumulate the poisons we manufacture for various purposes that are not water-soluble. It turns out that plastic polymers are sponges for DDT, PCBs and nonylphenols -oily toxics that don’t dissolve in seawater. Plastic pellets have been found to accumulate up to one million times the level of these poisons that are floating in the water itself. These are not like heavy metal poisons which affect the animal that ingests them directly. Rather, they are what might be called “second generation “ toxics [, and] they have been shown to have a number of negative effects in everything from birds and fish to humans. The whole issue of hormone disruption is becoming one of, if not the biggest environmental issue of the 21st Century.

He concludes:

I know that when people think of the deep blue ocean, they see images of pure, clean, unpolluted water. After we sample the surface water in the central Pacific, I often dive over with a snorkel and a small aquarium net. I have yet to come back after a fifteen minute swim without plastic fragments for my collection. I can no longer see pristine images when I think of the briny deep.

There is much more to the article.  Read it at

Our Discussion with Jo Royle

Jo Royle is an incredibly accomplished ocean sailor, including skippering the only all female team in a two person transAtlantic Race, but she is also an environmentalist, with graduate work in Environmental Science and Society at the University of Central London.

  • In the first part of the interview, we’d like you to tell us all about your trip. Was it fantastic, or what?
  • How well did the Plastiki perform? both as a sailing vessel and as home for the crew?
  • What was your route across the Pacific?
  • We read that you went near, but did not venture into, the Pacific Garbage Patch. Please tell us about that?
  • There must have been some scary moments. Please give us a vicarious thrill by telling about them?
  • How do you cope with claustrophobia on a trip like this? Where do you go when you want to get away from the crew? How do you pass the time in the boring stretches?
  • What was your reception like in your ports of call?
  • You had filmmakers on board? When will the movie be out?
  • Where is the Plastiki now, and what will become of it? 

    You have studied environmental science and are concerned about the intersection of science and society.

  • Let’s start with the science. What are some of the things you learned about the condition of the oceans from the Plastiki voyage. How bad are things? What was the evidence you saw or collected?
  • And the social aspects: What, if anything, can be done to keep plastic out of the ocean? Is this a reversible process?
  • We’re assuming you and the crew monitored the Gulf Oil Spill, which was taking place concurrently. Are there observations you can make that relate to your primary concern for plastics at sea? [We note that just two weeks after the oil flow was stopped, specialists are talking about how the oil is dissipating, evaporating, biodegrading. It’s not the same with plastics, is it?]
  • Are plastics-at-sea something that can be controlled through regulation? international agreements? Alternatively, are we possibly dependent on humans’ good will and sense of responsibility to cut down on plastic pollution?
  • What are the next steps, either for you personally or for the Plastiki campaign?
  • Are there other organizations that share you concern? How can listeners learn more and become involved?
  • Where will you sail next?

 Be sure to check out the Plastiki web site, which includes photos and videos of the expedition, Jo’s own blog, and information on how you can contribute to the campaign.

Additional Resources on Plastics in the OceanIn doing research for this program we discovered another daunting voyage that is taking place to publicize the problem. Go to to learn of the voyage of a man named Tom Jones, who is paddling from Key West, Florida, to New York City. He started May 12 and expects to finish August 28. The web site reads:

[For Tom] To accomplish this feat, the land mass between Key West and New York City is broken down into daily “legs” of paddling. Because of the continual unpredictability of weather and especially high winds, Tom has the option to paddle each daily leg either North or South depending on what he has to face on the water that day. Every day, starting and ending GPS points are precisely logged so that the distance paddled creates a continuous line that will cover the entire coast from the starting point at the Southernmost Buoy in Key West, Florida, to the world-record finish in Battery Park, New York.

The website has additional information on the plastics problem in the sea and sponsors campaigns to raise public awareness.

We also recommend a website, Ocean, which has a portal to other organizations the are concerned with a broad range of ocean issues.

Playlist for Ecotopia #97: Plastiki Arrives

 Pollution 4:50 Basskick   Sound Of The Nature – Collection 5

Pacific Ocean Blues 2:37 Dennis Wilson   Pacific Ocean Blue & Bambu

Sail On, Sailor 3:19 The Beach Boys    Greatest Hits Volume 3: The Best Of The Brother Years 1970 – 1986

Weave Me the Sunshine 4:28 Peter, Paul And Mary    The Very Best of Peter, Paul and Mary

 Bali H’ai 3:29 Juanita Hall    South Pacific (Original Broadway Cast)

Calypso 3:49 John Denver  Earth Songs