Kenyan Company Turns Flip-Flops Into Fine Art

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All photos: Ocean Sole.

Marine pollution is a persistent problem, and some coastal communities fight a never-ending battle to stop the tide of trash washing ashore. One biologist witnessed Kenya's east-facing beaches becoming the eventual host of trash from all over the world, including millions of cheap rubber flip-flop sandals. Her solution? Turning these pieces of colorful trash into treasure.

Julie Church created Ocean Sole in the late 1990s, and in the 15 years since launching, the company has made 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 art.

flip-flops on beach

"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," states Ocean Sole.

sculpting flip flop art

The company collects the flip-flops — including paying people who bring in what they've collected — and transforms them into art while providing a livelihood for local people. Providing a living for the artists who work for Ocean Sole is just as important to the company as its environmental message. Ocean Sole started as a small effort in Kiwayu in 1997, but 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, and the company pays for paternity and maternity leave, medical bills, three weeks of annual leave, and provides free lunches to workers. “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,” says Eric Mwandola, an artist with Ocean Sole.

preparing flip flops for sculpting

Not only has the company grown in size, but so has the reach of its message. Ocean Sole now has products stocked in the gift shops of more than 40 zoos, aquariums and museums. 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," says Ocean Sole.

The art also shows up in exhibitions. For instance, Ocean Sole worked 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.

whale flip flop sculpture

The whale is on display at Haller Park in Mombasa, bringing the message of marine conservation to kids on a daily basis.

carving flip flops into a sculpture

The company is all about cleaning up pollution, and that extends to their zero-waste policy. 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.

dolphin flip flop art

"These colorful masterpieces come with an important message about marine conservation whilst bringing smiles to people all over the world," says Ocean Sole.

turtles and flip flops on beach

In 2013 alone, Ocean Sole transformed around 50 tons of discarded flip-flops into animal sculptures, ornaments, and jewelry. The company's goal is to recycle 400,000 flip-flops per year.

elephant flip flop sculptures

Oceanic Society, a nonprofit ecotourism organization, is selling these sculptures on its website and it is the only distributor who sends 100 percent of the profits back to conservation. So if you want to make the biggest impact with your dollar, Oceanic Society is the best place to shop. And as a side note, Oceanic Society's Kenya Safari features a stop at the Ocean Sole studio in Kenya to educate travelers on the company's good works.

warthog sculpture on beach