Plastic pollution and its impact on the planet is on many people’s minds at present. Thanks to the legacy of the majorly successful Blue Planet II series and publications such as National Geographic’s Planet or plastic? issue, the world is waking up to the problems that plastic waste can cause for the environment and wildlife.
You may have seen my #PlasticFreeJuly post on here recently, or last year’s #NoWasteNovember post — both looking at simple ways to reduce use of single-use plastic in our daily lives. But what about the plastic waste that is already littering the world’s beaches? How can we turn its negative presence into something positive and beautiful? That’s where Ocean Sole comes in…
Removing pollution and supporting marine conservation
It’s not often you hear someone say that their ultimate aim is to be put out of business. But that’s exactly what Ocean Sole UK’s Mark Dougal tells me during our recent chat.
Ocean Sole makes beautiful, colourful animal sculptures from discarded flip flops, which have been collected from the beaches of Kenya.
Many of the 520,000 flip flops collected last year washed up on Africa’s east coast from Asia, where refuse systems in some countries are poor, causing flip flops (many people’s primary form of shoe — owing to how cheap they are) end up in the rivers; eventually making their way into the sea.
“My biggest hope would be that one day there are no more flip flops to collect off the beaches,” Mark says. “Then we’ll be put out of business. But with 3 billion people across the world wearing flip flops, that day seems very far away.”
Once they reach the sea, flip flops — which are made of non-biodegradable plastics — pose a threat to marine wildlife. It is now, thankfully, well-documented how plastic makes its way into the food chain, and how its volume increases significantly as it moves up each level. But plastics can also trap and entangle fish and other sea creatures, and winds and currents can transport them across the oceans.
In the 20 years that Ocean Sole has been in existence, they have cleaned up over 1,000 tonnes of flip flops from the ocean and waterways of Kenya and contributed over 10% of their revenue to marine conservation programmes.
Saving the ocean with heart and soul
Mark tells me the work that he’s doing as Ocean Sole’s UK distributor ‘really lights his fire’ and he credits his involvement with the company, and many of his successes with it to ‘serendipity’.
Like so many cases of people who have been inspired to do their bit in helping the environment, the origins of Ocean Sole UK began with the awe and excitement of a child.
“After realising I’d lost touch with travelling, which was something I really needed in my life, I booked a trip to Kenya,” he explains. “The night before I left, I visited my sister and told my nephew where I was going. He pointed out Africa on a globe —one of those globes that shows the different animals that can be found in each country. I asked him if he would like me to bring him anything back from my holiday and he answered; ‘a lion’.”
With this request in mind, Mark sort to find ‘the best lion he could’, for his nephew to take to Show and Tell on his return.
“I told my friend who I was staying with out there about my little mission,” he says. “He told me about a shop a few streets away that sold animals made from flip flops —which sounded perfect.”
Before even visiting the shop, however, Mark had a chance encounter with the store’s owner at a festival.
“I couldn’t believe it. I was at the bar at a music festival, in the middle of a nowhere, talking to a complete stranger. When I ask her what she did for a living she told me she sold animals made out of flip flops… I knew instantly it was the same place that my friend had mentioned. What are the chances?!”
“From that point on three years ago, I’ve had an awful lot of positive coincidences. I had another friend who was holding an open house art exhibition here in the UK and he asked me to bring some of the animal sculptures along. I brought along 10 and they all sold in one afternoon. That’s when I knew there was something in this.”
Mark has since invested in the company, and despite it being a side project to his full time job, he’s even seen his Brighton flat turn into a makeshift picking and packaging depot for his stock!
“We had a video go viral recently, receiving over 100 millions views! On the Monday morning the guys in Kenya came in to 10,000 emails in their inbox!”
“Here in the UK I had 150 orders in one weekend, and that’s when I realised I was going to have to outsource the packaging. It’s just too much for one man. We’ve now got a brilliant website for the UK side too, and things are looking good.”
From strength to strength, from soul to sole…
During the three years that Mark has been a part of Ocean Sole he says the number of artists working on the sculptures has gone from 50 to 90. In total, Ocean Sole provides a steady income to over 150 low-income Kenyans, both in the social enterprise and the extended supply-chain.
I love the idea that one business is helping to clean beaches, recycle plastic waste, encourage people to admire animals through its sculptures and providing local jobs to low-income citizens.
“One of the best things about this is that everyone wants to help.” Mark concludes. And from where I’m standing (in pumps, not flip flops I might add), it’s easy to see why.
Want to own one of these awesome animal sculptures yourself?
Check out the Ocean Sole viral video here.