Scattered across the workshop floor is a rainbow of color. Bright reds and yellows mix with greens and purples, while shavings of bright blue drop to the ground from a sculptor’s hands. This is the carving room of Ocean Sole, a Nairobi-based recycling business that transforms marine debris into works of art.
Their primary material, and the source of the vivid colors, is rubber from discarded flip-flops that are collected from the rivers around Nairobi and Kenya's coastline.
From waste to joyful art, Ocean Sole sculpts a new future for marine debris, one flip-flop at a time. (Photo: Jaymi Heimbuch)
Cheap and easily replaceable, flip-flop sandals are a common item found along Kenya’s shores. "Over 3 billion people can only afford that type of shoe," Erin Smith of Ocean Sole tells CNN. "They hang on to them, they fix them, they duct tape them, mend them and then usually discard them."
With a lifespan of just two years at best, piles of the discarded footwear rapidly add up. An estimated 90 tons of flip-flops find their way to East Africa's beaches every year. Ocean Sole is bent on turning the waste into artistic treasures, processing as many as 400,000 flip-flops annually.
Sitting outside the workshop are large bags of collected flip-flops, ready to be scrubbed. More piles of the rubber soles line tables for sorting.
The workshop is separated into various assembly areas. In one section, soles are glued together to create blocks. They’re then moved over to shapers who rough-out the outlines of various animals — rhinos and hippos, zebras and sharks. These go to the carvers who add in the details, and finally the sanders polish up each piece to perfection.
The end result is a brightly colored animal sculpture that can be as small as a key ring-sized sea turtle or as large as an 8-foot tall giraffe.
The company started in 2006, when founder and conservationist Julie Church decided that the waste she saw polluting the shorelines could become a source of employment for local Kenyans and inspiration for change on an international scale.
Ocean Sole now works with a variety of zoos and aquariums, filling thousands of orders and sending the colorful creations all over the globe. Along with each sculpture comes the message of reducing waste, recycling plastics, and protecting our oceans from debris.
The company's tag-line is "Flip the Flop," a call to action inspiring us to rethink waste as a raw material for art, and to rethink the impact of marine debris on the world's oceans.
Art chips away at an unemployment issue
Though the recycled art takes center stage, another important component of Ocean Sole is the employment opportunities it provides for Kenyans.
"Kenya has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the world," notes Ocean Sole. "About 40 percent of the population is unemployed, most of whom are low or unskilled and illiterate. In Nairobi alone, Ocean Sole has brought work to about 100 people and the company is still growing."
Each employed Kenyan is supporting between five to eight family members, often putting several family members through school. Such opportunities for work are a boon for the economy and the environment.
Though Ocean Sole has found a solution to flip-flop pollution, the company is only able to do so much. Billions of people wearing flip-flops adds up to a far larger problem than one recycling company can handle. The real need is to address the source of the problem, and to find a new biodegradable material that can be used to make flip-flops in the first place.
In the meantime, you can support what Ocean Sole is doing by becoming a Sole Mate. This includes sponsoring beach cleanups, donating to the workshop, or even simply buying some of the bright and beautiful artwork. Learn more in the video below: