Melissa's Travels

Flip-Flops, Recycled

When I was in Kenya in 2009, a friend brought me and my family to an inspirational workshop outside of Nairobi that just goes to show that eco fashion is a cottage industry even in the Third World. The founders of Ocean Sole were troubled by the thousands of plastic flip flops that wash up on the African coast each year and decided to tackle the problem with an innovative solution. Local communities collect the discarded shoes and bring them to a center where they are cleaned and transformed into beads and raw materials that local artists then use to create new products. The quirky, eco-friendly items are sold in hotels and markets, as well as at the workshop that I visited, but more than 75 percent are actually exported to distributors and individuals around the world. They recycle 400,000 kilos of flip-flops each year and turn them into everything from key chains and rubber animal toys to computer bags for Ministers of the UN Council of Environment. The tangible results are cleaner beaches, which benefits the wildlife and environment, jobs for 100 locals (in particular women in Nairobi) and a greater awareness at home and abroad.

As one of my children said when I explained the cycle of the flip-flops being worn, discarded, collected, cleaned, remade and resold, “It’s kind of like the circle of life.” Yes, after a safari we had “The Lion King” on our minds, but in a way it is a different kind of life cycle that has been created. When we visited the Marula Studio workshop in Karen, we were able to see the piles of flip-flops, the cleaning process, the artisans toiling on new works and the finished products in the atelier. The kids could have spent all afternoon debating over whether to pick multicolored elephants, bracelets or wallets but since every item was made of something recycled (money clips out of Tusker beer cans were eye-catching), they also had to ponder waste and consumption in a new way. In the end, they both chose animals and brought them home, knowing that they represented not just a souvenir, but an eco solution.

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