Imagining Water, #11: The Flipflopi Project

The eleventh in a year-long series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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At the end of this month in Lamu, Kenya, a 7-meter (22.97 ft.) boat made entirely out of recycled plastic, will set sail along the Indian Ocean coastline, launching what its team of planners is calling a “plastic revolution.” The effort to build this prototype vessel (and then a much larger version) in conjunction with a major movement to promote recycling and eliminate single-use plastic waste, is called the Flipflopi Project. The boats and the project have been named after the thousands of discarded flip flops that were collected by volunteers on local beaches, converted into plates and secured to the exterior of the vessel.

Origins of the Project

The Flipflopi Project is the brainchild of Ben Morison, Ali Skanda and Dipesh Pabari. Morison and Pabari both organize global travel adventures and reside in Kenya and the UK.  On one of his trips to Tanzania, Morison was appalled by the amount of plastic he was seeing on the beach, including tons of discarded flip flops, inexpensive casual footwear that is worn by people all over the world and especially those in the developing world. Pabari, too had become highly conscious of the growing amount of ocean trash and had even created buildings from flip flops and plastic bottles. In 2016, with the involvement of Ali Skanda, a traditional Lamu dhow builder from a family of Swahili boat builders that dates back to the 1300s; Leonard Schurg, a design engineer; and four additional team members, the project began in earnest.

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Discarded flip flops on the beach.

Building Flipflopi

Building Flipflopi entirely from plastic waste using traditional Swahili boatbuilding methods was a complex process, which began with beach clean-ups organized with volunteers from schools, conservation organizations and community groups up and down the Kenyan coast. Besides coming from Kenya itself, plastic debris on the Kenyan beaches had traveled by sea from Thailand, Malaysia, India, China, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Over 30 tons of plastic collected through these efforts, including 50,000 flip-flops, were sorted, shredded and bagged.

Regeneration Africa, a recycling factory in Malindi, Kenya, crushed and melted the plastic, which was then poured into steel molds made by local metal fabricators into the shapes required for the keel, ribs and planks of the dhow. The flipflop plates for the exterior surfaces were made by Benson Gitari, a local artist from the south coast of Kenya. Normally, a dhow is constructed from giant hardwood, which provides the appropriate strength and density for sailing.

Once all of the components of the dhow had been fabricated, Ali Skanda and the other boatbuilders began assembling the dhow using centuries-old methods without the aid of power tools or modern technology.

Flipflopi is a prototype for a much larger version (20 meters or 65.6 ft) that will have the capacity to travel 5250 kilometers (or 3,262 miles) from Lamu to South Africa along the Indian Ocean coastline through rough seas and challenging winds.

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Flipflopi under construction showing the plastic molded pieces in place. Ali Skanda, master boatbuilder, is wearing the blue shirt.

The Expedition and The Plastic Revolution

The Flipflopi team’s goals reach far beyond simply building and sailing a boat constructed entirely out of plastic. They are committed to creating awareness of the magnitude of the ocean plastic problem, especially among people in Africa and the developing world who “don’t speak or read English…don’t own a television…and may never have seen the sea” but are certainly familiar with flip flops. On the 3 – 4-month voyage to Cape Town, they will stop along the way to conduct beach clean-ups, visit plastic recycling projects, educate audiences about the global plastic problem and transmit their primary message to “reduce, re-use and re-cycle” plastic waste using Flipflopi as the primary example of what is possible. Their ultimate mission is to foster a plastic revolution, a global movement to eliminate single use plastics – the bags, bottles and packaging that are used once, tossed away and then end up polluting our oceans and sea life.

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The route of the Flipflopi Expedition.

In anticipation of Flipflopi’s completion and maiden voyage, publications throughout Africa and in England, Germany and France have featured the project; the BBC, Sky News, CNN and Al Jazeera have produced videos that include its plastic collection, recycling and boat making processes. This post may very well be the first article in the United States to publicize Flipflopi – its innovative recycling technology, its can-do community of volunteers and its critical global message.

(Top image: The Flipflopi prototype under construction showing the blocks made from plastic flip flops.)

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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