I went online to find out more about these garbage gyres. What was in them? Could you see them from space? What harm were they doing to marine life? I couldn't find much of anything. Not in academic journals, not in the popular press. "Hang on a second," I thought. "This can't be true." Why doesn't everyone know that our oceans are filling up with trash? Here was this amazing, disgusting manifestation of modern waste and overconsumption floating ominously between Hawaii and California, and it was effectively a secret. The thought of these human fingerprints smudging the oceans both alarmed and inspired me. What could I do to create an energy that would help solve this problem? From that question sprang the dream of Plastiki. The details would follow, but I knew then that I'd throw myself and the full resources and passions of the Adventure Ecology team, the expeditionary environmental organization I had launched in 2005 for the Arctic journey, into tackling marine debris.
Plastic pollution is a massive and at the same time intensely personal environmental problem. Although the effects of global warming—caused by colorless, odorless gases—are not yet widely felt, we touch and see plastic every day of our lives. With every trip to the grocery store or takeout deli, we can readily see our waste footprint grow. On the bright side, all of us can do something immediate and measurable to reduce it. A good starting point would be bottled water, which epitomizes the absurdity of our throwaway society. Each and every day, Americans consume 70 million bottles of water—nearly 9 billion gallons of bottled water a year. This despite the fact that the purity and taste of the water in those bottles is often lower than the water flowing freely from taps in our homes and workplaces. Only one in six plastic water bottles in the United States is recycled. The rest, some 22 billion empty plastic bottles a year in the United States, end up in landfills and incinerators, or as trash in the street waiting for the next rainstorm to sweep them into our seas. It was a few months later that I had what can only be described as an epiphany. I'd gone to Los Angeles in August 2006 to meet with Jeff Skoll, the first president at eBay and now chairman of Participant Media, the film production company behind The Cove; Food, Inc.; and An Inconvenient Truth, among other movies. I'd talked with Jeff about an idea for drawing attention to marine pollution: I'd take a bunch of artists out to the Eastern Garbage Patch and have them make sculptures of trash pulled from the ocean. The whole thing would be filmed documentary style. Jeff was unimpressed. "Where's the drama? What's the hook?" he asked. He was entirely right. The idea was flat.