- In January, the Flipflopi, a boat built of recycled plastic, set sail on a 500-kilometer (310-mile) voyage along the East African coast.
- The purpose? To raise awareness about ocean pollution and call for the repurposing of, and a possible ban on, single-use plastics.
- Globally, research on and attention to marine plastic pollution is mounting, showing that microplastics travel up the food chain, and that marine life and people alike are being exposed to microplastics through their food.
WATAMU, Kenya — One Saturday mid-morning in late January, close to 100 people descended on the narrow streets of Watamu village along Kenya’s north coast to clean up the streets.
Local beach cleaners in their white and blue T-shirts, children in school uniforms and ordinary villagers defied the sweltering heat. They picked up plastic bottles, bags and wrappers; glass bottles; old clothes and other litter from doorsteps, alleys, hedges, tree branches, gaping manholes and abandoned houses. By the time they approached the Watamu beach more than three hours later, they had collected tons of plastics.
Despite being sweaty and tired, the children still had energy to play. They sorted the different types of plastics and used them to create images of marine life on the sandy beach. The plastics were later taken away to a local organization for recycling into construction bricks and works of art.
Just off the beach bobbed the Flipflopi, a colorful 10-meter-long (33-foot-long) boat built exclusively out of recycled plastics. Its multicolored hull, clad in patches made from discarded flip-flops, set it apart from the other boats nearby. Its builders cum crew sat aboard offering short rides and explaining its materials, building process, strength and stability at sea to groups of curious visitors, who were ferried from shore by a smaller boat.
The Flipflopi had set sail from the town of Lamu a day before, embarking on a 14-day, 500-kilometer (310-mile) expedition along the East African coast to Stone Town in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The purpose of the voyage was to show the possibilities of recycling single-use plastics and to educate people on the effects of marine plastic pollution.
The plastic problem in Watamu, a popular tourist destination, reflects the situation not only in Africa but also globally. In a 2017 paper in Science Advances researchers estimate that as of 2015 the world was producing 400 million metric tons of plastics annually and discarding 300 million metric tons. A 2017 study in Environmental Science & Technology estimated that 88 to 95 percent of plastic pollution in the oceans comes from just 10 rivers, eight in Asia and two in Africa.
Plastics choke Kenyan marine life
The Tana is Kenya’s longest river, flowing about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) from the central part of the country to the Indian Ocean, enough distance to collect tons of plastics. It empties into the sea about 45 kilometers (28 miles) northeast of Watamu.
In a study published last year, Charles Kosore, a researcher at the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute in Mombasa, documented the presence of microplastics in Kenyan waters and their ingestion by zooplankton, tiny microscopic animals. It found that “microplastics have the potential to enter pelagic food webs and cause pollution in the study area.”
Globally, research on and attention to marine plastic pollution is mounting, showing that microplastics travel up the food chain, and that marine life and people alike are being exposed to microplastics through their food. A doctoral student at the University of Bern in Switzerland calculated that plastic pollution causes $13 billion in financial damages to marine ecosystems per year, according to World Finance magazine.
Kenyan fishers are certainly aware of the cost. Hassan Shaffir, a fisherman from Lamu, said plastics in the ocean have made him poorer in recent years. While fishing at sea, Shaffir said, he and his colleagues regularly encounter long rows of plastics dumped in by the rivers. These break their fishing nets, requiring repairs that cost money and take valuable time away from fishing.
“There are a lot of plastics in the sea and for those of us who fish using nets, we find it harder to catch fish,” he said. “If the plastic bottle attaches to the net it makes a sound, frightening the fish and instead of catching fish we catch plastic.”
Shaffir added that the fish eat plastic, mistaking it for food. Mohamed Ali, a Watamu fisherman, observed the same. “The most affected are the sea turtles,” he said. “We find that they are mostly choked by the plastics, which they find at sea.”
Jane Gitau, a senior warden with Kenya Wildlife Service in charge of Watamu Marine National Park and Reserve, acknowledged the problem. “We have seen deaths of endangered species, particularly the sea turtle,” which sometimes mistakes plastics for jellyfish, its main food, she said. “We have collected many carcasses of sea turtles due to this problem.”
A boat made of flip-flops
The Flipflopi’s builders aim to show that recycling can help clean the seas. But, they say, a ban on single-use plastics is what’s needed to put an end to ocean plastic pollution.
“We all know that we have reached a tipping point,” Dipesh Pabari, one of the project’s initiators, told Mongabay. “There has to be change. You’ve got the waste that exists and there is too much of it. And we can put it to a second life but ultimately we have to find a way to end it.”
The Flipflopi is the brainchild of Ben Morison, an Anglo-Ethiopian who spent his early years in Kenya. Seeing a small dhow made of flip-flops in Zanzibar inspired him to build his own boat out of plastics. Together with Pabari, his Kenyan childhood friend, he set out to achieve the dream in 2015.
It wasn’t easy building the boat. “A lot of research and development went into the design of the materials, some of which were made in Malindi [a town near Watamu] and others in Nairobi,” said Pabari.
They sent samples of the materials, molded bricks or planks made from compressed bottles and other plastics, to Northumbria University in England for tests several times until they arrived at a desired combination of strength and weight. It took three years to complete the boat because they were doing everything for the first time.
Ali Skanda, Flipflopi’s chief boat builder and captain, was ecstatic about having completed the boat and being able to sail it. “It is my hope that with this boat we are going to inspire more people to stop littering and start recycling plastics so that we can have a cleaner ocean for everyone,” he said.
The United Nations Environment Programme sponsored the Flipflopi’s Lamu-to-Zanzibar expedition through its Clean Seas Campaign. Between stops on the voyage, passengers collected samples of sea water to be analyzed later for microplastics, macrofibers and microfibers.
“We have got various kinds of scientific equipment and a lot of it is for citizen science, the results of which we will make available to the world,” said Simon Scott-Harden, a lecturer in product design at Northumbria University who oversaw the sampling. “We are very interested to find out about the microfibers that we find in the ocean … This comes from clothing and it is a big problem that we need to address,” he said.
While most African countries recycle plastics, they don’t do it on a scale big enough to curb pollution. In 2015, South Africa, one of the biggest economies in Africa, recycled approximately 293,000 metric tons through more than 200 recycling companies.
Kenya has far fewer companies recycling plastics. There are organizations like EcoPost, which makes recycled-plastic lumber; Ocean Sole, which turns old flip-flops into art and functional products; and Alternative Energy Systems, which converts waste plastic into fuels like synthetic oil. In 2018, a non-profit called PETCO Kenya launched to promote recycling of plastic bottles; it has the modest goal of recycling 14,000 tons by 2025.
EcoWorld, a Watamu-based project whose members and employees helped out with the cleanup, collects plastics from the beach and major tourist hotels and recycles them into construction bricks and art materials. The project is planning to expand its operations to more towns along the Kenyan coast. “We would like to collect more plastics because the companies that we sell to for further recycling have the capacity to recycle as much as we can offer,” said Steve Trott, EcoWorld’s director.
For her part, park warden Gitau called for an increase in the recycling of plastics in the region. “The more we recycle means less plastics getting into the ocean and we will have a clean sea and healthy fish,” she said.
Anthony Langat is a Kenyan freelance journalist who writes about climate change, the environment, development and human rights. He contributes to Mongabay, Al Jazeera, Devex, Thomson Reuters Foundation, and Equal Times among other publications.
Geyner, R., Jambeck, J.R., Lavender Law, K. (2017). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made Science Advances Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782.
Schmidt, C., Krauth, T., Wagner, S. (2017). Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea. Environmental Science & Technology 51(21), 12246-12253.
Kosore, C., Ojwang, L., Maghanga, J., Kamau, J., Kimeli, A., Omukoto, J., Ngisiag’e, N., Mwaluma, J., Ong’ada, H., Magori, C., Ndirui, E. (2018). Occurrence and ingestion of microplastics by zooplankton in Kenya’s marine environment: first documented evidence. African Journal of Marine Science 40:3, 225-234, DOI: 10.2989/1814232X.2018.1492969
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