Soda Bottle Island

Posted inEllen Shapiro
Thumbnail for Soda Bottle Island

Other people build houses on land. Richart Sowa, a carpenter and former British rock-band guitarist, has designed and constructed a whole island. This self-sustaining environment for living, about 20 meters (66 feet) in diameter, floats just off Isla Mujeres, Mexico, on 115,000 empty plastic one-liter soda bottles anchored by 11 concrete-filled car tires.

When Sowa sees curious visitors (like me, last week) peering at the island from the dock, he shouts ‘hallo’ and offers a ride over on his handcrafted raft, made, like everything else on the island, of recycled materials.

With the help of a few volunteers, he’s spent the past two years building this private tropical paradise with stuff collected all over Isla Mujeres. It’s a work-in-progress, he explains, called ‘Joyxsee,’ successor to an earlier project, Spiral Island, off Cancún, which was destroyed in 2005 by Hurricane Emily. Now anchored in the safer haven of Isla Mujeres yacht harbor, he keeps refining the methodologies. The soda bottles are clustered in net fruit sacks tied to the bottom of used shipping palettes—all woven together by the rapidly growing roots of native mangrove shrubs. “Coral grows on the bottles. The mangroves root in salt water and their roots bind the whole floating base together,” he explains. “They suck the nutrients on the bags and clean the water. This is a perfect system for filtering dirty rivers such as the Ganges in India.”

There’s a duck pond; a plant wall that insulates the house made of bags of household waste (above); a garden planted with beach plants like seagrapes that produce edible fruit; a solar-powered outdoor cooker; and a private beach with areas for dining and entertaining.

Sowa lives in the two-story house, which has a rooftop rain collector that provides water for the bathtub, shower, toilet and kitchen sink. And he’s got a cozy bedroom and a well-equipped office—all the comforts of home.

The island is noted as an attraction in eco-tourism guides and on the island map designed by Perry McFarlin of Can-Do Publishing. For the 100-peso entrance fee (about $8) visitors, in addition to the tour, get serenaded with a love-and-peace song and a taste of the granola-and-dried-fruit cake baked on the solar cooker.

Sowa is doing this individually, but not quietly. He wants the news out. There’s a Spiral Islanders web site with a community of fans who sign in to exchange chats and Q and A’s about ecology, island plant life, and renewable energy. And he’s angling for a reality show. “Be sure to watch the ‘Ripley’s Believe It or Not’ video,” he advises.

Plans to sail the island around the world like a small floating country, as reported in the video, have been abandoned, but Sowa hopes to export the technology as a model for sustainable living units for poor countries. “I want to bring this concept, this set-up, via workshops, to people all around the world,” he says. “You could have floating islands in every river. Imagine 100 or more of these islands in the Ganges. The whole river would be clean. Enough of these islands could stop Armageddon.”