When most people think about beach trash, they envision the rare plastic bag, glass bottle, cigarette butt or leftover beach supply. It’s something locals shake their heads about and (sometimes) throw away on their way off the beach. The trash is considered a bit rude, a bit lazy, but by no means extraordinary.
In places like Indonesia, Hawaii, India, China and the Philippines, however, plastic pollution on beaches has choked out wildlife and caused health concerns for residents. So much so that Haina Beach, in the Dominican Republic, is commonly referred to as the “Dominican Chernobyl” for having the highest incidents of lead poisoning in the world. Garbage consisting of everything imaginable, including paint buckets, diapers, toothbrushes, syringes and fishing nets can be found, originating from around the globe. A large chunk of this trash, however, is something people might actually wear to the beach – flip flops.
As far as the eye can see, in those places, flip flops lay on beaches like fallen soldiers in the war on plastic.
Ponte Vedra Beach resident Erin Smith said she is well aware of those dirty beaches. During a trip to Kenya, she met a tribe of women who were actually using some beach trash to make toys for their children. The women were motivated by the loss of habitat for sea turtles, which could not long make it up the littered embankment to lay their eggs. As the main footwear of the country, cheap flip flops made up a large portion of the seaside debris. Today, Smith is the CEO of Ocean Sole Africa, a social enterprise company that uses washed up flip flops to make colorful works of art. The company recently opened their headquarters off Palm Valley Road.
“I came back to see my parents and I really noticed a change in Jacksonville,” Smith said. “It's become very art-y. I felt like instead of going to Miami or Charleston, why not Ponte Vedra? We have a community here that really embraces art, conservation and charity work.”
The business model is what is considered a “B-company,” meaning a benefit company. A benefit company is a type of for-profit corporate entity that includes positive impact on society, workers, the community and the environment. While many companies see the “bottom line” as profit margins, benefits use the model to try to make the most impact across their values.
In the case of Ocean Sole Africa, the company prioritizes ocean cleanup and the Kenyan workers who make the business thrive. For an area with 40% unemployment, Ocean Sole keeps many families with a regular paycheck they wouldn’t otherwise have.
“We provide hot lunches for employees, fair wages and we ensure their kids have a school,” Smith said. “Nobody is driving a range rover. We are concerned with getting kids into university.”
Part of the allure of the pieces are their color, detail and sheer size. Manatees, elephants, giraffes and lions line the walls of the Palm Valley location. Shipped directly from Kenya, the flip flops are collected, cleaned, glued in layers, then finally the animals are carved out.
As amazing as the art is, the enormity behind the sculpture creates the value. It’s a project that takes a journey from the bottom of someone’s foot, to the trash, to the ocean, making its way eventually to the beaches of Kenya, where, finally, it becomes a sculptured masterpiece. It is a journey of art that currently resides in places like the children’s wing of hospitals and on the pool patios of bighearted Floridians.
For a cheap flip flop, it’s quite a voyage.
For more information about Sole Ocean Africa, got to oceansoleafrica.com or visit the gallery at 5150 Palm Valley Drive #406, Ponte Vedra.