The week of May 1, 2016

Sean Ironstag’s quixotic quest to build a society of plastic floating cities to clean up the ocean

By Rosie Cima

Five years ago, Sean Ironstag got on a friend’s yacht without knowing where they were going or how long they’d be gone. “It turned out we went straight out into the middle of the ocean,” he remembers. About a week later, they dropped anchor and went for a swim. “And when I came out,” he says, “it looked like my body was covered in glitter.”

It was a moment that would transform his life. Recently, the 35-year-old explained how he’d gotten there. The story is very much a personal mythology, romantic and larger than life: a teenage runaway from an abusive home in Houston, Texas, he moved to New York City, where he became an errand boy at a Brooklyn bar, sleeping on a cot in the back. He was taught to trade commodities by an older trader who let the underage Ironstag use his license.

Eventually he went stir-crazy and started globetrotting. In the Middle East, he says he fell in with a group of people he calls “freedom fighters”—former contract military who were going around inciting and aiding revolution. “A lot of them were ex-mercenaries who had seen the system from the inside and hadn’t liked what they had seen,” he says. “When I met them they were going around to areas that were on the verge of revolution. We got to see some really amazing things happen.”

He says that from there he found himself in South Africa, where he had an epiphany. “I realized that anything that ends in bloodshed on either end is a fucking tragedy,” he says, “So I got out. It really clicked something inside me. I wanted to find out how to do things better.” He wanted a peaceful, global revolution. He returned to the United States. The year was 2011; he had just turned 30.

He crashed in Los Angeles, living off the good graces of another friend in finance, undergoing an existential crisis. His friend invited him on a yachting “adventure,” and soon he found himself in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, covered in what looked like glitter.

It wasn’t glitter. He’d been swimming in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, first discovered in 1997 by Charles Moore, a sailor taking a shortcut from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Moore later described his discovery in National History magazine, writing, “As I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.” More than a decade later, the GPGP had only grown, and Ironstag, unwittingly, was swimming in the middle of it.

The “glitter” on his body was tiny pieces of floating plastic, broken down by sunlight in a process called photodegradation. The resulting fragments, small but persistent, are nearly impossible to clean up. As scientists have learned, these small pieces, some of them microscopic, crowd out the natural sea life near the ocean’s surface: There are swaths of the Pacific Gyre where the ratio of plastics to plankton is on the order of 100:1. That’s thrown the whole ecosystem out of whack. How that affects humans is the subject of ongoing research, but it is clear that these microplastics are sponges for pollutants and that they’ve entered the food chain. They get eaten by zooplankton, which mistake them for phytoplankton. The zooplankton get eaten by fish, which get eaten by larger fish, which get eaten by humans.

“There are no islands of plastic, rather a smog of plastic that pervades the oceans.”

“I didn’t know any of this when I took that trip,” Ironstag says. “But my friend soon downloaded that knowledge to me.” On the trip back to Los Angeles, he was spotting plastic flotsam everywhere. He decided he needed to do something. “Once I was made aware of the situation it was clear as day.”

• • •

He started researching, cold-calling experts in fields like marine ecology, climate change, and environmentalism, asking what could be done to clean up the ocean. Most of them told him it was futile—including Charles Moore, who’d devoted himself to documenting the plastic pollution since discovering the garbage patch.

Still, Ironstag learned a lot along the way. Finally, he says, “It all just fell into place and just clicked.” He devised a radical plan: floating platforms that would pull plastic from the ocean, then recycle it into building materials to further expand these cities on the sea. Or, as he puts it, “The solution to one of humanity’s greatest problems right now is harvesting that plastic and recycling that plastic on-site, then running it through mobile 3D printers to create these hexagonal modular platforms that connect together using electromagnetic technology and are powered by waveplate generators beneath them, and then building on top of those.”

This is, to be frank, a far-fetched idea. Moore has said cleanup is impossible—that our only hope is to stop putting more plastic into the ocean, then wait for what’s already there to filter out. He’d once told a TED audience, “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never gather up all the plastic and put the ocean back together again.” It’s not simply a question of figuring out how to repurpose great fields of marine plastic. As a writer for EcoWatch put it, “There are no islands of plastic, rather a smog of plastic that pervades the oceans.” That metaphor—of sifting smog from the ocean, rather than simply scooping up piles of free plastic—captures the difficulty of the problem. The plan proposed by Ironstag and his organization, Oceanus, joins a long line of well-intentioned efforts to leverage technology to clean up the ocean, most of which have been dismissed by scientists.

Technologically, the tools to build Ironstag’s floating cities just don’t exist yet. But suppose that they did. He argues that recycling platforms on the open ocean would cut the cost of shipping all that recovered plastic back to land, making it more cost-effective in the long run. (This, again, presumes such platforms could be built.) Patri Friedman, founder of the Seasteading Institute and no stranger to dreams of remaking society on the high seas, disagrees. “I suspect the costs [of getting plastic from the ocean] are literally 100 times as high as getting plastic on land,” he says. “I find it hard to imagine the ‘cool’ factor [of consumer materials made of recycled gyre plastic] making up that difference. It’s so much more expensive that I find the idea economically unfathomable.” He compares recycling ocean plastic to recycling orbital debris instead of mundane, earthbound soda cans.

Ironstag counters that building floating cities out of plastic would create demand—it’d essentially be “locally sourced plastic.” Besides the whiff of circularity in his argument, there’s still the fundamental problem of not yet being able to build plastic cities on the ocean. Besides the technical challenges of staying afloat and in one piece on a churning, oft-roiled ocean (think storms, rogue waves, and tsunamis), there’s Ironstag’s larger aspiration: to build a better, more sustainable society far away from dry land. Humans have been trying to seastead for centuries, and it hasn’t worked so far.

But Ironstag felt he’d found his answer. “It meant taking the problem humanity’s created, recycling it, and building a better and more functional and sustainable society from it,” he says. He particularly liked the poetry—and the politics—of his vision. He had wanted a means for peaceful revolution, and seasteading promised to be just that: Don’t like the country you were born in, or any of the alternatives? Start a new one!

“A network of networks, a platform for movers and shakers and collaborators and VCs and ambassadors to come together to work together to create a more excellent tomorrow.”

It’s just the kind of “disruptive” vision that appeals in Silicon Valley. Not only does the San Francisco Bay Area have a longstanding tradition of pursuing audacious technological advances, but it also has a history of environmentalism and intentional community-building, including a surprisingly large cultural scene around seasteading. The Bay Area is home to the Seasteading Institute and Ephemerisle, a seasteading-inspired festival that’s like Burning Man on the water.

Over the next several years, Ironstag says he built a core team of 10 to 15 people committed to the vision. He’s tight-lipped about Oceanus’s funding but says prominent venture capitalists Steve Jurvetson and Bill Tai have both contributed, independently of their firms. Oceanus has also been gifted assets, including the use of a 300-foot cruise liner, a 1936 research ship, and most recently, a small island in the northeast part of the San Francisco Bay, which they plan to use as a staging ground for their prototypes.

• • •

Despite the material and ideological support, it’s still not clear that Ironstag can achieve his vision. Unlike the more famous Ocean Cleanup project, Oceanus has published no feasibility studies. But according to Ironstag, other organizations have focused on other aspects of his big picture, meaning Oceanus doesn’t have to duplicate their work. “There’s no need to publish overlapping feasibility studies,” Ironstag says, “especially in areas where another organization has their full focus, while it’s only a facet of what Oceanus is doing.” He believes seasteading is the only area where feasibility studies might be applicable to his group, “but that aspect of our organization has been privately funded, and there’s no need to disclose our processes until we have them perfected.”

While he waits to prove the viability of seasteading, Ironstag has found other ways to evangelize his vision. In early 2015, Ironstag and his group attended a seasteading event in Palo Alto, California, where they met the host, Ari Eisenstat. Eisenstat is a long-haired, 20-something venture capitalist, self-described “radical optimist,” and founder of Draem Ventures. He specializes in “idea stage investing,” the basic principle of which is that it’s incredibly risky to invest in untested ideas well before seeing a prototype, but by maintaining a diverse portfolio, one can still bank lucrative returns on the few ideas that do succeed. It’s venture-capital thinking pushed to the knife’s edge of its logical extreme.

Eisenstat became a major Oceanus backer and stepped into an advisory role. “When I came on there was a lot of focus on the 3D printing aspect,” he says. “I got them to think about how they could be lean: What can we do now?”

They could build a community: He saw the organization as an ideal platform to help other startups in what he calls “aquapreneurship.” He and Ironstag want to promote their vision and bring in other people—those with the wide-ranging expertise necessary to make it a reality, from marine environmentalists to seasteaders to tech gurus and engineers.

Last year they held the first Aqua Conference and Festival: “an open forum focused on discussing environmentally responsible innovation and future of sustainable living,” hosting the event on one of their ships. Conference speakers included the directors of the Seasteading Institute, the senior advisor to the CTO and CEO of Autodesk, and the founder of Blueseed, a seasteading startup. This year they’ll again feature Aquaai, a robotics company developing aquatic drones that look and move like fish to clean pollutants from waterways .

Promising utopia via a conference series might seem like a cop-out. But Ironstag doesn’t see it that way. “We’re still working on our ‘prime directives’ of seasteading and cleaning up the gyre,” he says. “But so many other things have now entered into the mix.” Oceanus now aspires to something both less and more than its explicit goal: It wants to be a movement, bringing together people who see a problem and refuse to believe it can’t be fixed. Or, as Ironstag puts it, “What we have developed into is a network of networks, a platform for movers and shakers and collaborators and VCs and ambassadors to come together to create a more excellent tomorrow.”

Illustration via Bruno Moraes