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.
"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.
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.
The whale is on display at Haller Park in Mombasa, bringing the message of marine conservation to kids on a daily basis.
"These colourful masterpieces come with an important message about marine conservation whilst bringing smiles to people all over the world," says Ocean Sole.
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.
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.