Ocean Sole: making art from trash

Recycling shoes in Kenya

When you come across an old flipflop washed up on a beach, what do you see? A grungy old shoe? A piece of rubbish? Do you chortle as you point to a particularly battered one and joke, “hey honey, there’s your missing flipflop”?

Perhaps this story will change your perspective because it’s about people who, when they come across old flipflops, see potential: they see jewellery and art and multi-coloured animals. They also see a more sustainable future – for both themselves and the environment. This is the story of Ocean Sole, once known as The Flipflop Recycling Company, and it begins on a small island off Kenya’s far north coast, back in 1997.

Making art from old shoes in Kenya

One day, while leading a conservation project at the Kiunga National Reserve (near the Somali border), Kenyan marine conservationist Julie Church watched young children make toy boats and planes from rubbish they’d collected along their beach. Waste pollution is a big problem on the east coast of Africa, where the Indian Ocean current dumps debris from as far off as Indonesia, more than 7500 kilometres away, and disturbing scenes of mounds of plastic on beaches are frequent, says Church. She realised, while watching the kids play, that she’d stumbled across a possible solution to the waste problem, and the idea that eventually evolved into Ocean Sole was born. “Seeing what these children were doing with waste they’d collected inspired me to harness this resourcefulness and use it for a bigger cause,” says Church.

In a nutshell, Ocean Sole creates art from waste, providing sustainable sources of income to vulnerable families in exchange for cleaning up beaches. The company pays people for the flipflops they collect from the waterways of Nairobi and the beaches around Mombasa – a staggering 4000 kilograms a month – and employs others to carve quirky sculptures from the rubber shoes. And people around the world are going crazy for the upcycled-flipflop creations.

Making art from shoes in Kenya

Collecting the rubber shoes from around Kenya isn’t just dealing with the aesthetic problem of waste; it’s helping with conservation, too. “Flipflops are chewed and swallowed by animals and can kill them by clogging up their digestive systems,” explains Church. “The shoes also get in the way of hatching turtles when they make their frantic dash for the safety of the sea, and this endangers the species even further. Any marine debris is a threat to marine life, and flipflops just happen to be a huge component here in the Western Indian Ocean.”

Giraffe made from up cycled rubber flip-flops

Ocean Sole’s workshop is in Nairobi’s leafy suburb of Karen. Here, thousands of discarded rubber shoes are separated according to colour and scrubbed by hand. Then women (because for some reason women are better at this than men, says the company’s CEO Des Shiels) select various hues and glue the flipflops together, creating striped blocks of colour that are sculpted into various forms, from rhinos to elephants, warthogs and gorillas, which range in size from small keyrings to, Ocean Sole’s biggest project, giraffes that stand 2.5 metres high. The smallest products created are beads, which become earrings, necklaces, place mats and even curtains. The company reuses their initial rubber waste as many times as possible, gluing offcuts of offcuts together to create more blocks. And when they simply can’t be used for sculptures, Ocean Sole tries to find new ways to use what is left over, like providing soft “flooring” for children’s playgrounds, which is donated to local schools.

The products have evolved from the early days, when sticks and thorns held children’s mobiles of sea creatures together. “We sold these locally to generate funds for the community,” explains Church. “Then in the early days, an order from WWF Switzerland for 15,000 turtle-shaped key rings helped us streamline our production and we moved from sticks and thorns to better quality products using beads and glue.” The company has also expanded its market and these days Ocean Sole products are found in more than 100 outlets and at 50 zoos, aquariums and other conservation organisations in 25 countries.

Upcycling old shoes in Kenya

From a staff of six casual workers in 2005, the company now has 60 full-time employees at the workshop, most of who were previously unemployed. Another 100 people are paid for the flipflops that they collect in rural and urban areas around Kenya. For the past few years Ocean Sole has participated in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup, leading Kenya’s voluntary team to help clear rubbish and collect data from the East African coast. “We found that half of the rubbish is flipflops and the other waste is comprised of plastic bags and bottles, and other bits and pieces of plastic from lighters to pens,” says Church.

Looking at the rubber shoes collected is a good indication of a country’s footwear industry and trends, Shiels says, only half joking. The majority of the shoes collected from Kenya are red and blue, the product of local industry giants Bata. This is something the women who glue the shoes together have to keep in mind while they work, and so to ensure variety in the designs they slice the soles that are other colours (which often come from Asia, having been steered across the Indian Ocean with the top straps acting as a rudder) into smaller, thinner pieces, in order to make them go further.

how to reuse old flip-flops

Examining Ocean Sole’s raw material is an interesting exercise in one person’s waste becoming another person’s treasure. When you look at the sorting bins at Ocean Sole’s workshop, you’ll see that many of the flipflops have been repaired two or three times, stitched over again with old twine or stapled together, before they eventually lose value to their owners. In contrast, there is an American church that, inspired to help Ocean Sole, regularly collects old flipflops from the congregation and sends them over to Nairobi to be turned into magical rubber creatures. “To people in a wealthier community these shoes are ready to be discarded, but for many people in Kenya they seem brand new so we give these ones away,” says Shiels.

The products created in Ocean Sole’s workshop might look bright and fun, but establishing the company as a social enterprise has had its challenges and one of the biggest frustrations Church and her team have faced is the lack of financial support from government bodies to help with their clean-up operations. That said, and while Ocean Sole has not received any tax benefits or support despite being a company that helps both local people and the environment, Church is adamant that the company will not register as a charity. “The point is that we want to move away from a reliance on aid and provide sustainable solutions to alleviate poverty and support environmental objectives at the same time.”

Art made from up cycled flip-flops

While it is difficult to measure the effects that Ocean Sole’s upcycling has had on the marine environment, the impact it’s had on the social environment is far more apparent. “Our upcycled products bring people joy across the globe and help to raise the necessary awareness about the fragility of our oceans and what must be done to protect them,” says Church. “There is so much about this project that is rewarding, from improving Kenyans’ quality of life to ultimately changing people’s perceptions, attitudes and actions related to the pollution of our fragile oceans.”

The next time you come across a discarded flipflop on a beach, what will you see?


Ocean Sole feature in Sawubona magazineThis feature was written for and published in the January 2015 issue of Sawubona, South African Airways inflight magazine.

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