Plastiki's journey began years before the boat ever touched water. In June 2006, I'd just returned to London from an expedition to cross over the North Pole from Russia to Canada. It had been humbling—rapidly melting pack ice had ended our journey two hundred miles short of Canada. I saw how one of the earth's ecosystems was changing right before my eyes. And while thousands of schoolkids around the world had joined the "Top of the World" journey via the Web, I wanted the expedition to do more than raise awareness. I wanted to make it personal, to make everyone feel connected to the earth's fragility.
After any expedition there is some readjustment. It's an anticlimax. You've been living closely with your teammates in some of the most extreme and inspiring natural environments and then, with the planting of a flag or the last stroke of a paddle, it's over. Back in the real world, the thought kept running through my mind: "What's next? What can I do to keep the momentum going?"
Whatever the next expedition turned out to be about, I was resolved that it had to move beyond simply raising awareness of an environmental problem. It needed to touch people's lives, it needed to provoke an emotional response, and it had to point the way toward solutions. I felt strongly on these counts. Here I was, only weeks removed from having spent one hundred days living on the ice, and already I was feeling disconnected from what had transpired in the Arctic. If I was feeling that way, then how could I expect other people to relate to my experience?
While researching potential themes for a new expedition, I stumbled upon a small passage in an obscure report issued by the United Nations Environment Programme (my reading interests can run a bit geeky) that opened my eyes to an issue I was unaware of. Buried within "Ecosystems and Biodiversity in Deep Waters and High Seas" was this astounding fact: Every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of floating plastic garbage. Every square mile! I thought that this must have been a typo. I even asked UNEP. Nope. The stat turned out to be correct. How could this be? I dug deeper. From reports by Greenpeace and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation, I learned that the vast majority of marine waste is composed of plastic and, further, this pollution congregates in five enormous, slowly spinning ocean eddies. One estimate states that in the Eastern Garbage Patch, a gyre in the North Pacific that's approximately twice the size of Texas, every pound of plankton is outmatched by 6 pounds of plastic litter.