Entangled in seaweed, buried in the sand, tossed into the rocks: the bits of thongs are so many warts that dot the beaches of Kenya, carried by the rivers or by the recoil of the waves, from the other side of the planet.
Popular all over the world, these light and inexpensive sandals, like much plastic waste, are polluting the oceans and fine sandy beaches like Kilifi’s on the Kenyan coast surrounded by the Indian Ocean.
“Rich, poor, everyone has a pair”notes Lillian Mulup of the Kenyan company Ocean Sole, which transforms abandoned flip flops and other pieces of plastic into colorful sculptures or children’s toys. “Because they’re very cheap, you throw out a pair that’s out of order and buy a new pair. So we end up with a lot of flip flops on our beaches”she adds.
The growing scourge of plastic waste is at the heart of negotiations for an international plastics treaty, which kicked off Feb. 28 at a UN summit in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Governments are urged to agree on a framework to reduce plastic pollution ‘from source to ocean’, and to scale up existing recycling techniques.
Plastic has been found in the most microscopic plankton and even in the belly of whales. Less than 10% of plastic is recycled and most of it ends up in landfills and oceans. Since ” the deepest ocean break to the Arctic, we find plastic. it is to cry”said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, the UN program for the environment.
This ecological danger is clearly visible in Kilifi, where on Kenyan beaches enormous quantities of flip flops, but also bottle caps, toothbrushes or candy wrappers are regularly collected by volunteers.
“We can get up to a ton over (a distance of) 2 kilometers”, explains Mrs. Mulupi during one of these clean-up campaigns, which brought together about twenty volunteers in mid-February. Among them, Sally Adolwa says she regularly finds garbage from faraway lands behind the dunes bordering a beach near her home. “Waste can come from India, the Philippines. Sometimes we are shocked. †
Under a tree, large bags of waste are sorted by category. Hard plastics and PET bottles are sold on to recyclers. The flip flops — mainly made of foam and other rubbery plastic — are purchased by Ocean Sole, which pays the volunteers. The sandals are sent to a workshop in Nairobi, where they are meticulously cleaned and then glued to form multicolored sheets.
Dozens of craftsmen – often former carpenters – then brilliantly carve them into various objects, including animals, large and small, which are mainly found abroad. For larger pieces, such as two-foot elephants or giraffes that sell for several hundred dollars, polystyrene recovered from old refrigerators is also used.
“Our masterpieces may need about 2,000 flip flops”says production manager Jonathan Lenato.
drop in the ocean
Flip flops come not only from the beaches, but also from the rivers and gutters of the slums of Nairobi, one of Africa’s most dynamic capitals and struggling with a massive landfill shortage.
“We receive about 1.2 tons per week. Convert that into months, years (…) That’s a lot of flip flops”, explains Mr. Lenato. In total, Ocean Sole claims to recycle between 750,000 and a million flip flops a year and to have created about 100 full-time jobs.
But the company is facing a tidal wave of plastic: According to various estimates, between 19 and 23 million tons of plastic accumulate annually in the world’s waters, a figure that is expected to rise sharply in the coming decades if nothing is done. † Mr. Lenato is well aware of this, he who has never been short of raw materials in 16 years.
“We have to do something for our environment. We encourage people all over the world to do their part too,” he says: “We need to recycle our waste as best we can. †