Flip-flops, cheap and disposable footwear worn by celebrities and beachgoers alike, are clogging up the world’s oceans and posing danger to wildlife, according to a recent New York Times piece.

“Tons and tons and tons of plastic waste, including flip-flops, flow down rivers and clog drainage systems, and animals are swallowing them,” said Julie Church, a marine biologist.

Church decided to do something about the plastic waste problem by starting a company in Nairobi that recycles old flip-flops into toys and gifts. Called UniquEco, the store has found a following among those in the eco-fashion boutique business.

But flip-flops are just one small part of a rising tide in plastic waste that stretches down the East African coastline from Somalia to South Africa, according to the Times.

The United Nations Environmental Program, which last year surveyed eight countries for marine litter, has found that plastics make up from 80 percent to 89 percent of the waste stream, with the most developed countries the worst affected.

The survey deemed that rapid urbanization and population growth of coastal cities such as Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, are the major contributors to the problem, compounded by increasing tourism and the alarming growth in throwaway plastics.

“Plastic waste from bags, bottles and flip-flops is a very persistent and large part of marine litter on beaches and in the seas,” said Peter Scheren, project manager of the UNEP-West Indian Ocean Lab project, which deals with environmental problems in the marine and coastal areas of the region.

“Safe disposal of solid waste is often considered a luxury,” Scheren said. “The economic and social impacts of inadequate management are completely unknown, and are simply not considered by policymakers, despite the diseases, lost work days, and deaths. The impact is enormous.”

Some of the diseases may be caused by the chemicals and heavy metals found in plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and phthalates, which have been found to be harmful to animals.

“We were surprised that metals were present in so many samples, and DEHP [a softening agent] in such high concentrations,” said Mikael Karlsson, president of the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, which recently analyzed 27 pairs of plastic shoes made in various countries, from Uganda to China and the Philippines.

More surprising, the report found that the presence of toxic chemicals was not limited to cheap brands. In the meantime, many plastics such as PVC remain hard to safely dispose and recycle.  

Though some countries are starting to ban consumer items such as plastic bags, and others like Church are finding new uses for the cheap material, plastic imports continue to flood in.

 “Awareness is still low, and there is still a lot to do,” said Silvani Mng’anya, an environmental and public health activist in Dar es Salaam.

Flipping flip-flops into recycled toys and gifts
The ubiquitous beach shoes are creating a waste problem in the world’s oceans, but one woman is focusing on solutions for reuse.