Looking at my overstuffed book shelves I wonder if and when I might join the e-reader set. Just then a lovely book reminds me how this media offers something that no digital text nor fun web site nor quality documentary nor video on YouTube can: a personal, intimate, tactile experience with printed word and image, bound together in a package of elegant proportions. David de Rothschild’s Plastiki (Chronicle Books, 2011) rekindles my love of books.
If you haven’t heard the name yet, Plastiki is a vessel and an adventure: It is explorer David de Rothschild’s project to build a catamaran of plastic bottles (12,500 of them “glued together”, the text notes, with adhesives made of sugar and cashew nuts, to be exact) and then sail it 8,000 nautical miles across the Pacific. Why? To bring attention to what our species is doing to the world’s precious oceans, specifically the North Pacific gyre (one of five) where 3.5 million tons of plastic detritus roils. This magnificent journey has captivated many around the world, including thousands who have made a pledge at the Plastiki web site to swear off plastic bottles, plastic bags, and styrene, three of the biggest ocean pollution culprits.
I first became acquainted with the Plastiki book when William McDonough, the architect with whom I work, was asked to write an essay for it. Like many people who worry about the health of critical ocean ecosystems, McDonough is a fan of the Plastiki initiative and the passion of the man behind it, so he was delighted to honor both.
Though the power of the Plastiki story will be well told in many media, the book is a quirky, personal, and varied pleasure that allows for linear perusal or dipping in serendipitously. And that fits Plastiki. Produced by Melcher Media, the book is partly a narrative (by de Rothschild as told to Jim Gorman) of the idea, the project, and the journey itself. His infectious spirit and explorer’s perspective are beautifully captured in the text. He describes how the Kon-Tiki expedition (the balsa raft journey of Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl sailed to Polynesia from Peru in 1947) and his revelation of the name, Plastiki: “If plastic was the main human fingerprint on the oceans, then why not use it as the basis for a craft, a boat that would highlight this mess?”
Illustrations include photos of the boat under construction and at sail and the crew at work; detailed sketches from designer Michael Pawlyn’s sketchbook; charming, slightly crude diagrams about such things as how the boat sails; and articulations about plastic, including a world map of the five gyres and other plastic insults to the world’s seas. Crew profiles are short biographical sketches and quirky questions and answers. Sidebar texts are equal parts jarring (an inventory of the contents of a gray whale’s stomach that washed up dead near Seattle in 2010 includes a heap of human “waste”) and light-hearted (the crew’s favorite pirate jokes).
De Rothschild writes: “No longer is it acceptable to continue just articulating our Planet 1.0 failures. We now must all show leadership and vision to support the stories, individuals, and initiatives that help us dream bigger, undertake more compelling adventures.”
The real pleasure of this book is that it reflects the great diversity of the human enterprise: Driven by the distress of the ocean and the carelessness of societies that place no value on them as the precious resource, it tells the story of how one explorer and his team have made it their mission to create awareness. In the process they have given us a shining example of collaboration, ingenuity, and hope. (Being the caretaker of the bottom of the food chain is no small magic!) This book chronicles and captures that spirit with poetry, grace, humor, and verve. What a treasure.
Kira Gould is the co-author of Women in Green: Voices of Sustainable Design (find the Women in Green Facebook community here). She serves as director of communications for William McDonough + Partners and works from the firm’s San Francisco studio. Follow her on Twitter.