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Did you know? A plastic island is constructed in Mexico

Tony Burton

An entire island has been constructed, not by Bob the Builder, but by Richie the Recycler!

Amazing but true: off the coast of Quintana Roo, Richie Sowa has painstakingly constructed an entire island, on which he now lives, out of more than 200,000 plastic bottles!

A former carpenter from Middlesbrough, England, Richie has spent more than four years building his private island paradise, known as Spiral Island. The floating island is moored offshore one kilometer south of Puerto Aventuras, the popular tourist resort on Quintana Roo's Caribbean coast.

To make the island, Richie nailed layers of plywood to thick bamboo poles. He then filled nets with plastic bottles donated by passers-by and well-wishers, and hung them from the poles to make the whole contraption float. The island is about 20 meters by 16 meters (66 feet by 54 feet) in size. Talk about recycling! Even the sand on the three small beaches of this extraordinary eco-project was donated by local building suppliers as "surplus to requirements".

Richie's home-from-home now has a living area, two bedrooms and a kitchen, and is surrounded by a luxuriant garden. The main walls are made of plaited palm fronds; the roof is a plastic sheet. Since the island has no natural underground source of freshwater, rainwater is collected for drinking and irrigation.

And what about "daily ablutions", I hear you ask. The island is equipped with a self-composting toilet, and even a warm-water shower.

The whole island is tightly bound together now by the entwined roots of lush tropical mangroves, some almost five meters high. Almost all the other plants growing on the island are food crops. While he waits for his coconut palm to mature, tomatoes, beans and bananas, make Richie pretty well self-sufficient, except for condiments, salt and bread.

He usually cooks on an open fire, but also has a solar stove, consisting of a mirror (spiral-shaped, naturally) which focuses the sun's energy on food hung above it. Solar panels provide power for a few lights and Richie's one "desert island" luxury: a CD player.

Not surprisingly, Spiral Island, Richie Sowa's amazing home, has become an increasingly popular tourist attraction, receiving up to 100 curious visitors a day. Suitable donations (including drinking water) are still gratefully accepted. When tourists are not visiting, Richie relies on his ducks, cats and faithful canine companion Bonga for company.

Maybe one day, Spiral Island will be the subject of a Hollywood movie. But before that happens, the producers may have to search out its latest location. Richie is talking of pulling up the anchor and moving the entire island further down the coast, where there are fewer tourists and he can get more peace and quiet.

The island isn't very maneuverable, but he's working on that. One possibility is to add a dozen or so horizontal aluminum flippers that can be turned to change direction and that can be pushed up or down with the movement created by the waves. Such a system might just be sufficient to keep control of the island while navigating it out into the ocean and along the shoreline.

Richie is the latest in a long line of English eccentrics. His creativity, vision and determination are fantastic. Other people have sunk rusty old ships to make new underwater reefs, but the idea of building an entire island from scratch, using thrown-out plastic bottles? And, who knows? The idea could catch on. Maybe one day, we'll all be building our own island paradises. Or maybe it will become a rite of passage for all adolescents: build your own island and sail away from home!

Update (2011). Spiral Island was totally destroyed by Hurricane Emily in 2005, but Richie Sowa has since constructed an even larger plastic island, Joysxee, currently moored off the coast of Isla Mujeres.

Copyright 2003, 2011 by Tony Burton. All rights reserved.

Published or Updated on: March 14, 2008 by Tony Burton © 2008
Contact Tony Burton

Author of Western Mexico, A Traveler's Treasury (4th edition, Sombrero Books, 2013) and "Lake Chapala Through the Ages; an anthology of travellers' tales" (Sombrero Books, 2008), available from sombrerobooks.com, all good book stores, and Amazon.com. Co-author of "Geo-Mexico, the geography and dynamics of modern Mexico" (Sombrero Books, 2010, geo-mexico.com).

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