It’s hard to think of a type of footwear that better represents the maxim “easy come, easy go” better than flip flops. No one expects to get a lot of wear from these very inexpensive sandals: rather, you pick up a pair, wear them, and throw them away when they get worn (and they do that quickly). No biggie – they’re cheap, right?
Yes, a biggie – many of these plastic “shoes” end up floating around in the ocean, adding to the already massive amount of plastic waste in marine ecosystems. And, like most plastics, the material used in flip flops isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Fortunately, a small company in Kenya, Ocean Sole, saw potential in all of those flip flops washing up on nearby beaches… and now uses that waste material to make both decorative and useful items. The products have caught on, and Ocean Sole now has several dozen employees – many of them women – gathering and transforming old flip flops.
Aisha Abdelhamid covered this small company in much more detail at sister site The Inspired Economist. Take a look at the environmental challenges created by these “cheap” shoes, and the solution Ocean Sole has developed… for some of them. Let us know what you think…
Recycling Flip Flops From the Ocean Shores of Kenya
The world’s oceans are vast, floating dumps for plastic pollution. Without a serious plan for cleaning up the world’s oceans, this situation is dire and becoming worse every day. With a goal of retrieving and recycling 400,000 flip flops a year from the coast of Kenya, one small start-up in Nairobi is making a big difference.
The incredibly creative team of artisans at Ocean Sole transform the retrieved flip flops into colorful masterpieces. Safari animals, including lions, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, and warthogs deliver an important message about marine conservation with their delightful, whimsical creativity. These recycled flip flops from the ocean shores of Kenya are creating global awareness about our careless human footprint.
The Terrible Threat of Plastic Marine Pollution
Millions of flip flops float in the oceans of the world, annually suffocating fish and other animals. Wallowing with multiple tons of plastic debris, they wash up onto coastlines and obstruct turtle hatchlings from reaching the sea. Spoiling the natural beauty of both oceans and beaches, flips flops are a man-made nightmare endangering an already fragile ecosystem.
According to World Ocean Review, plastic marine pollution represents another terrible threat that does not get enough attention. Plastic items are nearly indestructible, they can drift for years, and for thousands of miles.
Many marine species adopt floating plastic debris, such as flip flops, and “hitch-hike” all the way across the oceans on them. In this way, invasive species spread to new habitats that would have ordinarily been impossible for them to reach without these “rafts.” An entire ecosystem’s equilibrium can be disastrously upset as a result of plastic marine pollution.
The Heart and Soul of Ocean Sole is CSR
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is the heart and soul of Ocean Sole. From inception, their goal was to have a positive impact by taking responsibility for their environment and community. Company founder Julie Church worked as a marine scientist for WWF and the Kenya Wildlife Service on Kenya’s coast, when she first saw children turning flip flops into toy boats.
When Church saw turtles hatching on the beach having to fight their way through the plastic pollution to get to the sea, her idea for the start-up flip flop recycling company hatched, too. Church’s eco-friendly business plan to clean up the debris by creating artistic and useful items gained momentum when WWF ordered 15,000 key rings.
Working with local communities, beaches and waterways of Kenya are being cleaned, employment is being provided, an eco-friendly product is being developed and distributed, recycling and environmental awareness is being encouraged, and ultimately, albeit piecemeal, the world’s oceans are being saved.
A Creative Cycle of Recycling and Re-recycling
To prevent littering and polluting the oceans, marine life, and ultimately humans, Ocean Sole organizes city and beach cleanups. They have a recycling hub for the local community, where glass, plastic, clothes and tin cans are recycled. Their product is made from the recycled rubber.
Water used for Ocean Sole’s production is collected from rain. Their products are handmade, with simple tools requiring very low energy consumption. Energy saving light bulbs, reusable printer cartridges, and very little paper waste are office policies, and they pay people to bring them recyclable materials. Even the waste from their creative recycled product is re-recycled, for example, as soft flooring for children’s playgrounds.
Generosity Breeds Loyalty in Kenya
Working with women in remote coastal areas with high unemployment, Ocean Sole’s operation started in 1997. The same local women still do piece work for them today. At their workshop, 40 employees from Kenya work full time, Monday through Friday, with free lunches provided. Workers are trained in many skills, and receive paid medical bills, as well as paternity, maternity, and 21-26 days of annual leave.
I was not able to afford shoes and had to borrow some to come to Nairobi to find work. I have been working here for 6 years…I can now afford to send my two children to secondary school and feed and clothe them well. I have set up a small farm upcountry with two cows and I sell the milk to my neighbours to make extra money and it is an investment for my children. The company supports me when I am sick and they pay my doctor’s bills. I say thank you. -Eric Mwandola, Artisan, Rhino Team
In Support of the Greater Good
Working alongside many NGOs and charities, Ocean Sole offers donations of their products and assists in fundraisers. In support of the greater good, they generously support the works of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, African Fund for Endangered Wildlife (AFEW) – Giraffe Center, and Kazuri Beads.
Ocean Sole’s recent donations have helped raised funds for Riding for The Disabled, The Rhino Charge to fund the water towers of Kenya (Aberdare mountain range, Eburru Forest Area and Mountain Kenya), Save The Rhino International, and Friends of Dagoretti.
They have also created the Ocean Sole Foundation, initiating a global drive for supporting the clean-up of oceans with the innovative use of plastic marine debris and reducing the use of plastics. The foundation campaigns actively for better management and protection of the ocean’s resources, ecosystems and habitats. 5% of all profit from their product sales goes toward funding their foundation, as well as 25% from the sales of giant recycled flip flop sculptures.
To say that Ocean Sole is passionate about the ocean, its ecosystems and marine wildlife, is clearly an understatement. They are a shining example of clever ingenuity, artistic creativity, and environmental activism melded and molded into a company as fascinating as their products.
With global distributors, and products found in zoos and aquariums worldwide, you are sure to recognize the delightful products of Ocean Sole. They are also available online at Ocean Society for U.S. sales, and at Odyssey and Co. for Global Sales. Check out the great YouTube video, for more information on this truly inspiring company:
(All images copyright Ocean Sole)
Featured image credit: Screen capture from “Cleaning Beaches, Creating Masterpieces 2” video