Turning flip-flops into art

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.

Others had punched hundreds of holes in each flip-flop to make beads strung together into bobbly multi-colored curtains, necklaces, belts and placemats. One young Kenyan girl on holiday from art school in Britain sat with a bag of flip-flop shapes testing out new jewelry

There is no shortage of raw material. Outside the workshop a recent 880-pound delivery of broken flip-flops was piled up in bags — that is roughly 1,000 sandals. “Flip-flops wash up on our shores from Malaysia, China, Mozambique and Tanzania,” said Church.

“The challenge is coming up with designs, finding the market and not making it look  'community,’” Church said referring to the dodgy designs and poor workmanship that often distinguish do-gooding projects.

“You need to understand color and make sure the product is actually good.”

The recycling scheme began with backing from the NGO World Wildlife Fund, but is now run as a for-profit business that produces designs that customers are willing to pay for. (A wide range of goods, from jewelry, to placemats, to a backgammon set, can be ordered from UniquEco's website.)

It might be easier to run as a charity or NGO, tapping into the vast benevolent funds available, but Church wants UniqEco to be sustainable in the longterm, not subject to the vagaries of donors’ short attention spans. So she decided that UniquEco must be a profitable commercial enterprise.

Church has ploughed her own money into the business for five years but struggles to make a profit, largely because fashioning the recycled goods is so labor intensive.

“There’s no machine that can glue flip-flops together and cut them into shapes,” she said.

Slowly UniquEco is building its reputation and attracting more customers. In addition to the various little animals and household goods the rubber artisans have crafted a couple of showstoppers.

A 15-foot-tall flip-flop giraffe named "Twiga" graced Rome Fashion Week in July last year and "Mfalme," a life-sized minke whale, did a tour of Kenya before reaching her current resting place in a public park in Mombasa. The aim of all this is not simply to please the eye or give tourists an unusual keepsake. Church pointed out that she remains a conservationist and her driving ambition is to clean up Kenya’s beaches and marine environment for the sea turtles and others creatures.

The flip-flop recycling efforts have been an inspiration to others and back in Watamu there are plans to recycle other marine waste. Trott’s Watamu Marine Association is pioneering a waste management program that will employ local people to collect rubbish from the beach and the town.

The plan is to pay the collectors from profits earned by recycling the rubbish. Trott explains that glass can be cleaned and reused or smashed up and used as a building material and plastics can be melted down and reformed into new household goods. And flip-flops can be turned into art.

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of UniquEco.