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'Ocean Sole' Turns Washed-up Flip-Flops Into Art

  • Mackenzie Buckwalter

Francis Mutua has been a wood craftsman for years. But today, the Kenyan artist is working with a much softer material -- plastic flip-flops.

And as he cuts and glues the raw materials and recycles them into whimsical animal sculptures, he's also cleaning up his nation's coastline.

Tens of thousands of plastic sandals are collected each year by the non-profit environmental group called Ocean Sole. The discarded flip-flops wash up on Kenya’s beaches and are tossed out in its poor neighborhoods.

“In the slums, people use a lot of sandals," said Mutua. "When they are finished, they discard them. There are people who walk and collect them and bring them to the compound.”

Finished toy animals made from discarded flip-flops are laid out in rows to dry in the sun at the Ocean Sole flip-flop recycling company in Nairobi, Kenya.

Finished toy animals made from discarded flip-flops are laid out in rows to dry in the sun at the Ocean Sole flip-flop recycling company in Nairobi, Kenya.

At the Ocean Sole workshop in Nairobi, the sandals are turned into eye-catching art by Mutua and 50 other artisans.

Ocean Sole was founded in 1997 by Kenyan conservationist Julie Church, who sees the project as a way to promote change in how people live.

“Being able to impact people through training, education and awareness in a much greater level -- right now we’re just dealing with the clean-up," said Church. "If we get more people involved in cleaning up their act, I think we can do something.”

Workers collect the washed-up flip-flops and bring them to Ocean Sole’s headquarters to be cleaned and sorted. There, they are glued together, sanded and given new life.

Ocean Sole brought Mutua and several other artisans to Washington DC for the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, to demonstrate their craft and spread their environmental message.

As he displays his work, Mutua said Ocean Sole has changed his life - and his country - in ways he did not expect.

“The difference made by these," he said, "we are saving the environment."

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