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Kenyans recycle beach debris into colorful toys and wearable jewelry.
WATAMU and NAIROBI, Kenya — “When you get these pristine beaches,” conservationist Steve Trott explained gesturing toward the nearby miles of fine white sand, “it’s not because the plastic and the rubbish is not there, it’s because it’s either out at sea or buried under the sand.”
Few of the tourists flocking to Watamu and other towns lining Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast know about the tons of waste entombed beneath the beautiful sandy beaches or floating on the waves far beyond the coral reefs.
No systematic studies have been done but one local hotel that runs weekend clean-ups of the beach estimates that up to 13 tons of rubbish washes up on its little stretch of beach every year.
Accounting for a significant amount of the myriad of plastic, glass and tin junk are flip-flops, the lightweight rubber sandals worn (and then discarded) by millions of people across the world, especially in the developing world where they are among the cheapest available
footware. Thanks to an imaginative recycling operation this flip-flop flotsam is being given a new life in art and fashion.
“It all started with kids making toys out of sticks and thorns and flip-flops,” said Julie Church, the 40-year old Kenyan environmental scientist behind UniquEco, a Nairobi-based company that turns old flip-flops into new products. Working in turtle conservation on Kiwayu Island in the Kiunga Marine National Reserve off Kenya’s northeast coast, Church watched as children collected broken chunks of flip-flop from the high-water line to fashion into the wings for little aeroplanes, modeled on the ones they saw flying overhead ferrying tourists to their resorts. The kids would play with these homemade toys for hours and each flip-flop they collected was one less to block the sea turtle’s nesting sites.
“The project evolved from there,” said Church, standing in the UniquEco workshop in Nairobi. Around her a dozen men and women busily cleaned, cut, glued, shaped and sanded old flip-flops. Once the flip-flops were glued together the craftsmen and women had big lumps of colorfully striated rubber to work with.
In the showroom next door were animal sculptures — crazily striped rhinos, elephants and lions looking like mini psychedelic safaris. Bright rubber mobiles hung from the ceiling, hippo-headed hobbyhorses were stacked in the corner and a display table was a parking lot for little rubber 4x4s and "matatus," or minibus taxis.