Most people use flip-flops to walk on land, but one enterprising Kenyan recognized in the durable slabs of plastic a way to buoy ocean awareness.
Ben Morison is a tour operator in Lamu, Kenya, and much of his business depends on boat expeditions in the nearby ocean. In recent years, he’s noticed an increasing amount of plastic pollution when taking travelers out on the water and realized that this plastic was both harming marine life and tourism.
That’s when the idea struck him to make a boat out of recycled plastic waste to bring more attention to the problem, according to UN Environment. He recruited a team of volunteers to collect and recycle plastic, and employed engineers and master craftsmen to build the vessel.
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After more than two years of work, the Flipflopi dhow, a type of boat, set sail on Sept. 15, becoming a flamboyant symbol of the growing crisis of plastic waste.
The colorful craft is 9 meters in length and is made of more than 10 tons of plastic, according to UN Environment. Flip-flops, in particular, proved to be an invaluable resource in the boat’s construction.
“Around 3 billion people on planet earth wear or own flip-flops,” Morison told UN Environment. “They are the most ubiquitous bit of footwear. They are worn by black people, white people, people from Australia to North America. They cross language barriers and age barriers. They are a brilliant connector.”
The boat is also only made from locally recovered plastic, which Morison argues shows that similar projects can be undertaken anywhere in the world.
Kenya has emerged as a regional leader in the fight against plastic waste, having banned plastic bags in 2017.
“We have expressly limited ourselves to locally available resources,” Morison said. “We built this boat with traditional boat builders. There’s not a computer in sight. There’s barely a power tool in sight. We could have completed the project in five months and it’s taken two and a half years. That’s because we explicitly wanted to demonstrate that this recycling, this ability to repurpose plastic, can be done in this kind of environment.”
The Flipflopi has made some brief trips around Lamu, Kenya, but early next year it will set sail for Zanzibar, with the aid of UN Environment. There, the boat and its crew members will advocate for countries, companies, and individuals to take greater action to stop plastic pollution.
Globally, up to 13 million tons of plastic waste enter the world’s oceans each year. Plastic has gathered in huge gyres, traveled to the most remote stretches of Arctic ocean, and blanketed sea floors. Marine animals often suffocate from plastic, get entangled in it, or become poisoned by it. Plastic also causes harm to coral reefs, which can become pierced by it or be blocked from receiving sunlight.
Around 60% of this marine pollution comes from six countries in Asia, largely because of inadequate waste management systems.
In the years ahead, Morison hopes to build bigger versions of Flipflopi and inspire other people to take action.
“I’m thrilled to be able to get down to Zanzibar and hopefully spread some contagion to Tanzania,” he told UN Environment. “The reality is that what we’ve done is very simple. It’s just daring to dream. It’s getting people to let go. You just need to have an idea and be creative.”