21 September 2013 was International Beach Clean-Up Day, an initiative of the Ocean Conservancy, sponsored by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), as part of the Trash Free Seas programme. With the aim of galvanising volunteers to contribute to making the ocean and beaches cleaner, and to raise awareness about the effects of plastic waste on marine environments, the plans for the day caught the eye of Julie Church, founder of Ocean Sole. Along with Steve Trott of the Watamu Marine Association, she has inspired around 500 people in Kenya and Tanzania to join in the effort to clean the countries’ beaches. In Kenya, the majority of the coastline, from Kiunga in the North to Msambweni in the South, is covered, and it was in Msambweni that the Handshake joined the effort.
Julie’s interest in the day, and in cleaning marine environments, stemmed originally from conservation work she carried out in Kiunga Marine National Reserve in 1997. She was horrified at the waste washing up on the shores of fragile ecosystems and causing harm to the environment, then inspired by children making toys for themselves from the remains of flip flops they found on beaches. She encouraged their mothers to collect flip flops, clean them and make them into colourful sculptures; this is the mainstay of Ocean Sole’s business, and continues today.
In their workshop in Nairobi, Ocean Sole recycle about 100kg of flip flops a week. They focus on selling what they are good at making, which is currently animal sculptures; their work is featured in zoos, museums and aquaria worldwide, including London, San Diego and Dubai. With a clear target to turn over a million dollars in the next year, Julie and her colleagues are very focused on cementing the concept of recycling as a real business, as well as a good thing for the environment and the community. Working with 20 suppliers around Nairobi, Ocean Sole buys flip flop waste for 30 Kenyan shillings per kilogram; this creates a trade for old flip flops and stops the waste at source, as all of Nairobi’s waterways flow back to the sea.
This year, hoping to link the business back in with her roots in conservation, Julie started the Ocean Sole Foundation, ensuring that a percentage of profits goes back into marine conservation and into impacting people through training, education and awareness. Through the foundation, Julie wants to start making simple bracelets that promote the ‘save the beaches’ message. These will be made by women living along the coast, using recycled flip flops, and the aim is to get 4000 women involved and sell a million bracelets in order to make a big impact and drive the message home.
Along with around 70 other people, we gathered for the beach clean early in the morning on a stretch of Msambweni’s beach, ready with sacks and gloves to collect plastic waste from the tide line. At a glance, the beach looks idyllic; palm trees, clear blue sea and, above all, clean white sand. When you start walking along it, though, you begin to notice the brightly coloured plastic festooning the seaweed that has washed in with the tide, and the clumps of fishing line and discarded flip flops dotted at intervals along the shore. Stooped over and squinting to try not to miss anything, but making quick progress nevertheless, the beach clean-up team collected a total of 391.5kg of waste, divided into 48 sacks that we dragged and heaved away from the beach as collection came to an end. Along with over 200kg of flip flops or parts of flip flops, the sacks contained:
64.5kg of plastic containers
15.5kg of clothes
15.5kg of plastic bags
20kg of ropes and fishing nets
7.5kg of small bottle tops and 2kg of large bottle tops
1.5kg of toothbrushes
and much, much more. This list is shocking enough, but when we were told that the beach had been cleaned a couple of months ago, and that this much waste could accumulate in such a short time, the scale of the problem hit home with even greater force.
So why is this waste a problem? As the list demonstrates, most marine debris is plastic. The advent of plastic in 1933 heralded a revolution in people’s ability to easily and safely store and transport food and water, and the mass market for the material boomed in the 1950s and 60s. However, it is only in the last ten years that we have begun to understand the impact of our reliance on plastic products. Plastic waste breaks down into progressively smaller pieces, becoming more dangerous as it does so. Through birds and fish ingesting them, these small pieces find their way into the food chain, releasing toxins as they degrade further. The problem is perhaps most starkly highlighted by the existence of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area of floating rubbish in the North Pacific ocean which has reached the size of Texas. Even more poignant is footage from Midway Island, where colonies of sea birds are dying out due to ingesting the plastic that washes up there, and some have been found to have 50% of their digestive tracts filled with plastic debris.
As an adaptable species, Julie says, we have a choice. We can look at what our reliance on plastic is doing, and find solutions. What is needed is for the plastic industry itself to be cleaned up; cleaning a beach is the end of a long chain, and the fact that we were joined for the beach clean in Msambweni by Umoja, a large manufacturer of shoes and flip flops, is a step in the right direction. Ultimately, plastic introduces toxins into the environment and is killing species and habitats, so the mentality of doing something about it needs to spread quickly.
As for individuals, there is also plenty that can be done to help. Understand recycling and where your waste is going – putting something in the bin is the start of the life cycle, not the end. Support companies, such as remarkable.co.uk, and of course Ocean Sole, that are looking into new ways to recycle and use waste products, and ask questions of companies that produce plastic products; there needs to be consumer pressure to get corporations to sponsor environmental charities or fund research into making the industry cleaner.
Spending just a couple of hours cleaning a small stretch of one of the many beaches in the world affected by plastic waste was a thought-provoking experience. It is hard to look at the plastic we buy without picturing it washed up on a beach somewhere, or killing a sea bird which mistakes the brightly coloured fragments for food, yet it is difficult to avoid plastic products and it is undoubtedly a matter that needs to be addressed at every level not just when it becomes obvious by blighting our beautiful wild places. We will continue to support and promote Ocean Sole’s work, and hope that this inspires others to do the same.
To find out more about the Ocean Sole story and how you can support their work, go to http://www.ocean-sole.com/, or follow them on social media at https://www.facebook.com/OceanSole and https://twitter.com/OceanSole1