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On a boat made of garbage

Kirk Gillock’s recycling campaign is making waves around Thailand

environment, natural-resources, transport,

Steven Layne

Tuesday 17 May 2016, 04:05PM

Community beach clean-ups are the new craze these days, in Phuket, and throughout Thailand, where increasing numbers of eco-conscious locals and expats can be seen at beaches, putting their hands and hearts together to pack plastic bags full of litter before posing for a group photo, giving each other high-fives and calling it a day. 

With all this trash collected and properly disposed of, the logical assumption is that ground is being gained on the environmental front, yet truth be told, Phuket’s solid-waste disposal system continues to be overwhelmed with well over 700 tonnes of new trash brought to Saphan Hin’s landfill every day – some of it sent to the incinerator, yet the bulk of it gets piled up in overflowing pits, with some ultimately leaching back into the environment.

American expat Kirk Gillock has taken Thailand community trash clean-ups to another level with his nationwide campaign “Think Before You Throw” (in Thai: คิดก่อนทิ้ง), initiated in Nong Khai, making waves, literally, throughout the Mekong River basin: he sailed Thailand’s first plastic-bottle catamaran hundreds of kilometres along the mighty artery in 2011, broadcasting messages in both Thai and Lao languages to “get both sides of the river”, actively drawing in and engaging with the local community, who would come out to see his vessel, constructed entirely out of wood and recycled plastic bottles. 

“For years I had been living in Thailand and noticed a lot of people throwing their trash into the river, and to them, it was ‘gone’ because they couldn’t see it any more. But it’s never really gone, it just relocates to somewhere else… The river brings life to so many people, and it was sad to see people treating it this way,” said Kirk. 

Motivated to change the status quo for the better, Kirk, a graphic designer by trade, knew he needed to do something interesting to get people’s attention. Though he’d never built a boat before, and had only gone on some leisurely sails on friends’ boats, he had a strong vision, and passion, which rapidly materialised into some sketches. After consulting with an architect and engineer friend in Nong Khai, Alec, his vision soon became a reality. 

That initial eight-metre-long boat was built over approximately four months by volunteers from all over the world, using donated wood for the frame and about 6,000 plastic bottles, a third of which sat below the waterline, enabling the vessel to float. 

BCIS Education Center Phuket

“I set off from Nong Khai around July of 2011, and sailed the boat some 500 kilometres downriver, ending up in Khemmarat [district] in Ubon Ratchathani, where the journey concluded due to strong weather.” 

Kirk ended up donating that boat to the Mayor of Khemmarat, where the boat was moored for a few years on display for locals before it was finally dismantled, and all the materials recycled.

Fast forward to the present day, where Kirk, now armed with valuable design and engineering lessons from his initial successes, has relocated to Prachuap Khiri Khan, along the Gulf of Thailand, where he is constructing an even bigger plastic-bottle catamaran – a 14-metre-long seaworthy
sailing vessel, whose buoyancy will be enabled by between 12,000-15,000 recycled plastic bottles.

“All the bottles were donated by the local community, and we’ve gotten a lot of attention from the Thai media. So many volunteers have contributed in various ways, from the welding by students and teachers at the local vocational college, to solar panels, and ultimately the engines,” he said, noting that he has funded the rest from his own savings. About 95 per cent of the project is finished, and Kirk is hoping to launch the vessel by the end of May, when he will conduct safety tests and make any necessary adjustments, before sailing the vessel up shore to continue the
“Think Before You Throw” campaign”. 

“I plan to sail up to Phetchaburi, then ultimately up to Bangkok and Samut Prakarn, where I intend to attract more media attention, before continuing on down the coast to Laem Chabang, and Chonburi, and perhaps around to Rayong, and even Cambodia,” he enthused. Depending how things go, Kirk expects to use the boat for six months or so, before salvaging and recycling it.
He may end up popping around down to Phuket, and continuing the campaign, or starting a new one, in the Andaman region. No doubt, we sure could use more initiatives like this. 

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