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In Kenya, old flip flops are turned into masterpieces

Grace Wangare-executive accountant, displays toy octopus made from pieces of discarded flip-flops, at the Ocean Sole flip- flop recycling company shop in Nairobi.   -  
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SIMON MAINA/AFP or licensors


Kenya will host the 5th session of the UN Environment Assembly starting on Monday February 28th. Curbing plastic pollution will be a hot topic. Ocean Sole, a Kenyan enterprise recycles discarded flip flops and other plastic garbage found on beaches and waterways into colourful sculptures and children's toys.

Pristine white-sand as far as one can behold. But it is only at first glance. In Kilifi, North-eastern Kenya, plastic pollution has become an eyesore on the country's beaches. Flip flops like other plastic trash can be found along the seashore.

The beach on the Indian ocean gathers trash sourced from the sea but also rivers and canals. Volumes of plastic litter come from as far as India or the Philippines.

During their clean-up session, volunteers pick up plastic bottle caps, candy wrappers and flip flops. The flip flops -- mostly cheap, modern varieties made of foam and other plastic materials that mimic rubber -- are purchased by Ocean Sole, allowing collectors to earn a little extra cash to support their families.

Kenyan enterprise Ocean Sole collects and recycles discarded flip flops in order to reduce plastic pollution.

Lillian Mulupi is an Ocean Sole flip flops collection coordinator: "Flip-flops are the most common, most affordable pair of shoes for a lot of people; rich, poor, everybody has got a pair. Since they're very easy to afford, when a pair is done, you just throw it away get a new one."

When the discarded shoes are retrieved from the sand, a new journey begins. They are cleaned and sorted into categories. Hard plastics and PET bottles are sold to recyclers, the flip flops are sent to a workshop in Nairobi, for a Cinderella-like makeover.

Jonathan Lenato, an Ocean Sole production supervisor explains the process: "Weekly, we receive about 1.2 tonnes (of flip flops, ed.), so turn this into months and then, into the whole year actually it’s like more than 40 tonnes per year. It’s a lot of flip flops .... Also, the artists who are working here, most of them converted from the wood carving. On that side, we are saving trees which is good for our environment."

From trash to treasure

Dozens of artisans turn the flip flops into colourful sculptures and children's toys. Off cuts and harder plastic unsuitable for sculpting are shredded into filler for mattresses. Plastic insulating Styrofoam salvaged from dumped refrigerators is used as a meould for larger works. Like elephants and giraffes that can sell for many hundred dollars. The unique artwork entirely made from marine trash is mostly sold abroad.

Ocean Sole says it recycles between 750,000 and one million flip flops a year, and has created around 100 full-time jobs.

Kenya will host the fifth session of the UN Environment Assembly starting on Monday. Governments are urged to agree on a treaty framework to curb plastic pollution. Nowadays less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled, with most dumped in oceans and landfill.

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