Climate change, over-fishing and plastic pollution are among the worst challenges the world’s oceans are grappling with today.
Environmental lobbyists believe that the ever rising pressures on the oceans might eventually pollute the life out of these water bodies.
Oceans absorb about 25 per cent of all human carbon emissions, besides provide providing food, water and oxygen to billions of people and animals on the planet.
They provide more than 60 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, says Prof Micheni Ntiba, the PS, State Department of Fisheries and Blue economy, adding that the water bodies’ benefits to humans and the environment cannot be underestimated.
That is why Flipflopi, an environmental lobby group, has embarked on an ambitious project to build a dhow from discarded plastic and flip-flops at the Kenyan Coast.
Once completed, the vessel will sail from Lamu to Cape Town, South Africa, flying a banner with the inscription, “Eradicate the use of single-use plastic bags.”
Mr Ben Morison, the Flipflopi project founder and co-leader, says they want to spread the campaign against the use of polythene in Africa because the plastic menace is not unique to Kenya.
“The need to address the plastic menace is a collective responsibility because when you ban plastic here but it is allowed elsewhere, it will soon be carried by water to your backyard,” says Morison.
There are more than five trillion pieces of plastic floating in the world’s oceans, according to a 2014 study published in a Public Library of Science journal. When plastic degrades into tiny particles known as micro-plastics over time, they can be ingested by marine life, together with plastic microbeads used in toiletries and other household products, harming the food chain and the environment.
Environment Cabinet Secretary Judi Wakhungu, in a notice published in the Kenya Gazette on February 28, banned the carrier and flat plastic bags used for commercial and household packaging by August 28, in an effort to end the bags’ effects on the environment.
The lack of a comprehensive waste management system in the country has seen the bags thrown all over, leading to the blockage of drainage and sewerage systems, polluting water systems, endangering livestock and littering the environment.
The move to ban plastics has elicited mixed reactions from the public and plastic manufacturers, but environmental crusaders like Morison have welcomed it.
“If Kenya implements the ban on plastics while its neighbours don’t, our waters will still remain contaminated with polythene bags and flip-flops. Nonetheless, I’m very happy that Kenya and other East African countries are showing leadership as far as plastic eradication is concerned,” says Mr Morison.
He is working with members of the Watamu Marine Association, who will collect 25 tonnes of discarded plastics along the coast for making the dhow, which is being built by local traditional boat builders.
The association’s members have been collecting flip-flops and plastic waste washed ashore for the past three years, transforming them into items for sale to tourists.
Mr Morison says the idea to build the dhow crossed his mind last year after seeing a beautiful model made of rubber collected from the ocean at the resort where he was staying. It was made by artefact makers in Malindi to address the problem of dumping plastics in the ocean.
“I make a living from selling holidays to this beautiful country and it’s getting covered in plastic! I could not just sit back,” says Morison.
Members of the Watamu Marine Association say they collected five tonnes of plastic in three hours during the World Oceans Day on June 8.
Every year, the The United Nations Environmental Programme (Unep) says, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans, wreaking havoc on marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism, and costing at least $8 billion (Sh824 billion) in damage to marine ecosystems, adding that up to 80 per cent of all litter in our oceans is plastic.
Another study published in October 2015 by researchers from the University of California, Davis, and Hasanuddin University in Indonesia, which analysed the guts of fish sold in markets in Indonesia and California, found that more than a quarter of all fish now contain plastic.
Mr Morison started the Flipflopi Project after coming face to face with the shocking quantity of plastic and flip-flops on so many of East Africa’s beaches and their toll on marine and land ecosystems.
Morison and the Flipflopi Project team believe that any serious attempt at reducing plastic use requires a change in consumer behaviour upstream in the lifecycle of single-use plastics.
“One of the ways The Flipflopi Project plans to advocate its message of reducing, re-using and recycling plastics is through The Flipflopi Expedition which will use plastic waste and flip-flops collected from Kenya’s coast to build a 60 ft traditional Swahili sailing boat (dhow),” explained Mr Morison.
“To make the materials for the dhow, we melt plastic until it looks like candle wax, which is then poured into metal moulds. This is technology made in Kenya, just like M-Pesa, and we decided to engage traditional boat builders instead of engineers,” says Morison, adding the dhow is schduled to set sail sometime in January 2018.