In Conversation with David de Rothschild

Liane Rossler, designer and environmentalist, meets one of her heroes, global adventurer David de Rothschild, on the arrival in Sydney of his famous Plastiki boat.
Formed from 12,000 recycled plastic bottles held together with cashew nut glue, from the deck and cabin to the sails and hulls, the Plastiki is no ordinary vessel.


LR: Congratulations and welcome to Sydney! David, I’ve been following your adventure and I think I got interested when you were first developing the plastics. How did you start?

DR: It was probably Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough, a book about closed loop design and there being ‘no such thing as waste in the natural world’ that first inspired me. That, coupled with the staggering statistic that there are 13,000 items in every square kilometre of our oceans. I was like, “Well, that’s crazy, because it sounds like what’s ending up in there doesn’t need to be there. Ultimately, waste is an inefficient design. When we look at how we use materials, we often don’t consider the output at the end. We design for a functional purpose and the last thing thought about is where it ends up.

But what’s important is that even today when you say ‘cradle-to-cradle design’ to someone, they are like, ‘What’s that?’ So the process was really driven first and foremost by trying to educate through building a vessel out of plastic bottles. I wanted the bottles to be visible and functional.

We went through a number of design processes, dead ends and concept architects and naval architects. Finally, we were at the point where we’d built the Plastiki boat using a marine plywood as our frame. The process just organically happened. If it hadn’t, the boat probably wouldn’t be here today, or at least not in the way I wanted it: a vessel that was aesthetically pleasing but also had normal function. The process showed what happens when you stubbornly believe that everything is possible. We just messed around and tinkered until we came to the conclusion that it had come to life. Seretex [a plastic developed by de Rothschild] is a smart material; it’s 100 per cent recyclable and 10 times better than fibreglass, which is what most people think the boat is made out of. The fabric and the material came from inspiration, perspiration, curiosity and a dollop of luck.

Liane Rossler with David de Rothschild

LR: Now you’ve invented this new material, can it go onto the market for other people to use?

DR: I have a business based out of San Francisco, Adventure Ecology, and we’re already designing a number of  structures for different clients.

LR: That’s brilliant.

DR: It’s very cool. The collaboration has gone full circle and now we’re basically designing and creating products out of this material.

LR: That’s wonderful. And having invented these new things, so many more things must be coming together?

DR: Yeah, we are doing lots of different collaborations on different products. Design has always been in my heart and everything I’ve been interested in, design and art, is about creativity for change. We have a division in our organisation based on design, pure design.  We’re not just working on Seretex but on different glues, bio-based glues, bio-packaging; stuff that’s below the radar. We use the analogy of the icemaker: everybody wants to be the new brand of alcohol above the bar, and it’s all about packaging and how it’s lit, whereas the guy who makes the ice cubes, no-one ever sees him yet ice is in everyone’s drinks. I think that’s what interests me, looking at things just below the radar, that are ubiquitous and that you can tap into that are going to have a massive impact. [The late American designer, engineer and inventor] Buckminster Fuller was a big influence on me and the project. On the rudder, you have a thing he called a trim tab. Just by slightly moving the trim tab, you can move the rudder, which then moves the boat. That’s the kind of design that I’m interested in.

LR: It’s so important that you think about what will happen to the product once you design it. You talk about ‘dumb plastics’, because plastic was invented to be a benefit – you know that picture in the 50s in magazines saying how it would make life easier – and it has become such a problem.

You’ve said how easy it is to eliminate the problem if we just cut out plastic bags, polystyrene, bottles and lids. What a difference it would make.

DR: It’s an interesting story; a guy called Leo Baekeland basically invented modern photographic printing paper, sold it to Eastman Kodak in 1899 and was paid a million dollars. Photographic paper allowed photographers to develop photos taken in artificial light instead of sunlight. So he went to New York, set up Baekeland Industries and created Baekelite, the first synthetic plastic. He was trying to re-create a naturally formed resin, called shellac, produced by the lac beetle in South-East Asia. Shellac is actually still used today, in things like candy.

There was an explosion in its usage, with Edison and the light bulb and electricity and people needing insulators for wires. You know, plastics need components; they are incredibly versatile and reusable. But if mixed with certain materials, they become ‘monster-hybrid’ materials, and last forever. When it comes to the end of the life cycle, it doesn’t go anywhere because it you can’t physically break it apart. It’s done its job, which is to be strong and bonded and to last, but at the same time, we’ve now got this problem: where do we put it all? 10 million plastic bags a day will be used in Australia, and only 3 per cent will be re-used. Where do they go? They’re not all going to landfill; they’re going to the bottom drawer under your kitchen sink or your cabinet or tragically into the ocean, into the underwater valleys of whales and marine mammals and other marine birds.

I think we designed plastic with all the right intentions. I don’t think Leo Baekeland would have thought his material would make such an impact in a negative way. Look at that line in The Graduate, the great film with Dustin Hoffman: “I’ll give you one word, my friends: plastics.” It is everywhere, from the jacket I’m wearing to the camera; we’re surrounded by it. We have to start understanding the material, because it isn’t black or white. Some plastics we can get rid of; they’re unnecessary. But we’re still going to need plastic for life-saving machinery and for wind turbines. Plastic is like diamond in some ways – commonly found, a naturally formed material. But diamonds are controlled by a few companies who have told us that it’s a valuable material because it lasts forever, goes on for eternity; hence the eternity ring or engagement ring. And how it’s a symbol for love and commitment and passion and all these things, and how everyone needs a diamond because it lasts forever, and that it’s a girl’s best friend. Now, plastic is commonly found, it comes from naturally formed materials or fossil fuels and other bits and pieces, but it also lasts forever. But the story we’ve told ourselves is that it’s valueless; it’s cheap and abundant, non-toxic and easy to produce. The bad thing is, it lasts just as long as a diamond – in fact, we don’t know yet because no one is around to judge the difference between the two – but this will last 500 to 1,000 years and hence everything being produced will end up somewhere, in the atmosphere, oceans or as landfill.

So, in a way, I always knew that Seretex was going to last the entire journey and will probably be here after I’m gone. When people ask if the boat had any wear and tear, it’s only what we bought off the shelf. Everything else is handmade. I look around the boat and I remember every little bit, who was working on what and when we did that and how we got excited by certain tapes we’d created. It was made out of a lot of curiosity and passion and it has been fascinating watching it grow and watching the material take on a life of its own.

LR: I think it’s really interesting what you’re saying. We have to change our whole values system. Even this boat – the beauty of something handmade and the beauty of the experience – is hard to put a price on. It’s about adjusting our thinking of how we will value things in the future.

DR: Totally, it makes me smile because it’s the path least travelled. A path not without risk of failure – we definitely failed in some points [but] we persevered and eventually ended up in Sydney.

LR: I love the way that you said you use adventuring curiosity as a tool to move forward. I find that very inspiring for people to think outside the square and look at doing things in different ways. Could you talk a little about the collaborations you’ve had in working on the boat?

DR: Well, obviously, most collaborations have been with [carbon-neutral luxury Swiss watch company] IWC Schaffhausen, and what has been interesting is that people always ask me why IWC and I partnered. I think, one, there’s a mutual value system we both have; we both look at where IWC places marketing dollars and there is a very clear link that there is meaningful marketing. I always work with companies, I don’t alienate them and I don’t sit there and point fingers. To really be passionate, you need to be a bit of a geek and the IWC person who is wearing the watch is a bit of geek – they love those watches to bits. People who know the company know everything about them and keep on coming back to it and that’s what I wanted. I wanted people who would look at the detail, because detail is what we’re missing when it comes to our everyday habits. We just consume and don’t look at the detail.

This collaboration has been one of the most satisfying and one of the most impactful, because the type of person buying this is not just buying a watch, they are buying deep into the message, deep into the detail. The person buying this is your campaigner, your passionate go-getter. Someone who is an influencer, a change-maker, somebody who is going to take the story and not just tell the time but wear the message. So that’s been one of the foundation partnerships and collaborations in this project. And then we got some friends of mine based out of San Fran [Architecture For Humanity architects Nathaniel Corum and Michael Jones]. We just bumped into each other at the very last minute and I was like, “Hey, your timing is impeccable, are you able to do the interior? I want it to be different, I don’t want it to be the same old thing, and would you be interested in coming and getting involved.’ They are a really creative bunch.

We also collaborated with Klean Kanteen, they did all those reusable bottles, which have been really cool, again, just another way to get the message out. The collaborations have been very organic. I think most people have either found the project or the project has found them, I don’t think it’s been forced; it’s been a real family of passionate, inspired people that have just really committed to (a) the cause, and (b) thinking differently, outside the box, not being afraid to care. I think that’s why we have seen these passionate connections gathering and actually working so well.

LR: It’s been an incredible journey. You attracted incredible attention. Do you find that countries responded differently to the journey?

DR: It’s funny, it’s still sinking in. It’s quite surreal in some ways because what we’ve always wanted to do is create a multi-layered story. A story for everyone and one you could dig deeper into, if you wanted to – if you were a geographer or biologist or marine biologist, you could dig deep; if you were a sailor or engineer, you might just be interested in the adventure or art side of it or the collaborations that we created. There was an access point for everybody.

Fundamentally, what has been really inspiring is that people have continually said, “You weren’t afraid to follow your dream, and now I’m going to follow my dream.” I think that was why we created my Plastiki. It’s a metaphor for change.

What is your Plastiki? What can inspire you to follow your own adventures, create your own stories or inspire other people to dream? I think that has been consistent and I sit here today and look at news feeds and look at the emails and the letters and am just blown away. I’m humbled just to be a part of it.

LR: That’s wonderful. I love that you’ve taken this on and solved so many problems along the way. By doing this you, are creating so many layers of inspiration, so congratulations.

DR: Thanks very much.

This is an extended version of an interview that appeared in Vogue Living Nov/Dec 2010.

Interview: Liane Rossler
Photographs: Luca Babini and Patrick Riviere

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Comments
One Response to “In Conversation with David de Rothschild”
  1. Jeremyville says:

    well done Liane on a great interview! congratulations David on such a clever and important endeavor. awesome.

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