“These colourful masterpieces come with an important message about marine conservation whilst bringing smiles to people all over the world.” – Ocean Sole

Kenyan company Ocean Sole collects discarded flip-flops from beaches and transforms them into animal sculptures. The company is on a mission to up-cycle the Earth’s flip-flop pollution into inspiring art while promoting conservation and creating employment. While most coastal communities are fighting a never-ending battle to stop the tide of trash washing ashore due to the persistent problem of marine pollution, in Kenya a biologist decided to make good use of this bad situation and work with, rather than fight the inevitable garbage.

“As a bizarre and yet very real phenomenon, thousands and thousands of flip-flops are washed up onto the East African coast creating an environmental disaster. Not only spoiling the natural beauty of our beaches and oceans, the rubber soles are swallowed & suffocated on by fish & other animals, they obstruct turtle hatchlings from reaching the sea and are a man-made menace to our fragile ecosystems.” – Ocean Sole

As she watched, day in and day out, Kenya’s east-facing beaches becoming the eventual host of trash from all over the world, including millions of cheap rubber flip-flop sandals, she got a brilliant idea – to turn these pieces of colorful trash into treasure. Her name is Julie Church and her idea was the beginning of the company Ocean Sole created in the late 1990s. Since then, the company has made quite a dent in cleaning up beaches, providing jobs to local men and women, and educating people around the world about the problems of pollution through beautiful pieces of sculptural artwork.

“Our process is manual not machine. Each piece is made with care and love, the story of each product begins as a flip-flop on someones feet, then its thrown out and ends up in the ocean. We collect it, clean it, compress it and then carve it into beautiful art to be revived again with love. Through the process, oceans are cleaned, jobs are provided, masterpieces are made, and in the end, you get something truly special and unique.” – Ocean Sole

The company pays people to go out and round up all the flip flops they can get their hands on. They collect them daily. This provides a livelihood for local people. More people then are paid to take these flip flops and transform them into art. This provides a livelihood for artists. All of this is equally important to Ocean Sole as is their environmental message.

 

What started out as just a small business with a few people back in Kiwayu in 1997, has grown to include more than 100 individuals from areas where there is high unemployment such as Ngong and Mombasa. At Ocean Sole’s workshop, 40 Kenyans are now employed full-time. They even provide employees with benefits such as paying for paternity and maternity leave, medical bills, three weeks of annual leave, and provides free lunches to workers.

 

Eric Mwandola, an artist with Ocean Sole, said:

“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 six years. I can now afford to send my two children to secondary school and feed and clothe them well… The company supports me when I am sick and they pay my doctor’s bills.”

The reach of their message has traveled far and wide. They have become so popular that their products are stocked in the gift shops of more than 40 zoos, aquariums and museums. This isn’t just good for business…it’s good for the environment because with each new distribution point, the message about plastic pollution finds its way to a broader audience.

“We are continuing to appeal to organisations to offer eco-souvenirs that support conservation efforts rather than factory made plastic trinkets.” – Ocean Sole.

Ocean Sole artwork also shows up in exhibitions. To give you an example: they collaborated with the World Society of Protection of Animals and the World Coastal and Marine Secretariat to commission sculptor Kioko Mutiki to create a full-size Minke whale completely from flip-flops and wire mesh. The whale was put on display at Haller Park in Mombasa to bring the message of marine conservation to kids on a daily basis.

Ocean Sole is super serious about cleaning up pollution, and that extends to their zero-waste policy. MNN explains:

“The waste from the sculptures is collected and used as flooring for kids’ playgrounds, and they even collect rainwater to use in their production. Other materials needed for the sculptures and packaging are also recycled goods, including buying rubber off-cuts from shoe companies, buying recycled beads from local suppliers, and buying used netting to use as packaging.”

The company has a yearly goal – to recycle 400,000 flip-flops. Usually, Ocean Sole transforms around 50 tons of discarded flip-flops into animal sculptures, ornaments and jewelry in one year. One of their partners, the Oceanic Society, a nonprofit ecotourism organization, is selling these sculptures on its website. It is the only distributor who sends 100 percent of the profits back to conservation. Therefore, if you want to make the biggest impact with your dollar, Oceanic Society is the best place to shop for a flip flop masterpiece.

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