Flipflopi Shows Value of Creating Circular Economy for Plastics

1 April 2021 (UNEP)* — For much of the last three weeks, the Flipflopi, a dhow made from recycled plastic, including a helping of old sandals, has been calling into ports across Lake Victoria. The crew of the 10-metre-long vessel is on a mission to raise awareness about a tide of plastic choking Africa’s biggest lake – and to demonstrate that trash can be turned into treasure.

UNEP / Stephanie Foote / 31 Mar 2021

“Flipflopi was built to show the world that it is possible to make valuable materials out of waste plastic,” said Ali Skanda, co-founder of the Flipflopi.

The boat’s voyage, which is supported by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), comes at a critical time for both Lake Victoria and Kenya, says Llorenç Milà I Canals, the head of UNEP’s Life Cycle Initiative.

A recent report by UNEP found that 27 per cent of plastic waste in Kenya is collected and, of that, only 7 per cent is recycled in the country.

The problem is global. Humanity’s penchant for producing cheap plastic products, using them, and then throwing them away, has created a global pollution crisis that is threatening the natural world and human livelihood.

 “If you accept that you can extract a resource and dispose of it, and sell it cheaply without paying the externalities, you are directly subsidizing the cost of compromising the environment,” says Milà I Canals. “We are getting things super cheap, but only paying half the price [for them]. And that is going to cause problems now and in the future.”

Redesigning our approach to plastic

The multi-coloured deck of the Flipflopi dhow
The Flipflopi was cobbled together from waste plastic, including flip flops, which make up much of its deck and hull. Photo: UNEP / Stephanie Foote

In the last 50 years, plastic production has increased more than 22-fold. Humans now generate 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year and 8 million tonnes of that ends up in oceans. Much of it also filters into inland bodies of water, like Lake Victoria, which straddles Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya.

One 2015 study found that 20 per cent of the lake’s fish had ingested microplastics, pieces of debris less than 5mm long. That could have long-term implications for the 200,000 fishing households around Lake Victoria.

The Flipflopi crew, who are on their second voyage, are promoting a circular economic model, one that focuses on reusing products and minimizing waste. At the heart of the plastic waste, the problem is what experts call the “take-make-dispose” model of consumption, which sees products get manufactured, used briefly and then tossed away.

Globally, the circular economy is seen as a crucial way to cut pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. If products were repaired and refurbished, the world could reduce its use of raw materials by up to 99 per cent, according to UNEP’s International Resource Panel.

It begins, according to Milà I Canals, with the designing out of waste with an eye toward products that are reusable, and limit environmental impact both in the manufacturing process and the disposal stage.

“We have global commitments to achieve progress downstream to get rid of plastic waste,” he says. “But we also need to look upstream to reduce the amount of plastic going into the economy.”

A job creator

Even plastic products that are tossed present a livelihood opportunity in places where plastic recovery has become a mainstay for people operating in the informal sector.

One example of that comes from Kenya, where local company, Mr. Green Trading, has hired more than 600 people to collect and sort plastic and polyester. What can be recycled is transformed into pellets and sold to companies for use in packaging.

The recycling effort is “a way to provide some consistency in employment for people who have really been forgotten,” says founder Keiran Smith, who aims to eventually hire up to 4,000 waste collectors.

“As a hub of plastic manufacturing in East Africa, Kenya could become a pioneer in collecting, transforming and selling plastic in a fully integrated model,” he says.

Other locally-driven plastic recycling companies are also leading the transformation. Flipflopi’s partner, the Taka Taka Foundation educates people on plastic pollution while creating jobs and infrastructure to support recycling.

Involving local communities

Two children hold a sign protesting plastic pollution
The crew of the Flipflopi are hoping to raise awareness among East Africans about the rising tide of plastic in Lake Victoria. Photo: UNEP / Stephanie Foote

By converting even part of the local economy into a circular one that both removes plastic waste from the environment and turns it into something else, Lake Victoria communities could be at the vanguard of an emerging green industrial revolution.

Dipesh Pabari, co-founder of the Flipflopi project and captain of the Lake Victoria expedition, stresses that local communities need to be included in circular solutions that draw on their strengths – among which is their love and reliance on the lake itself.

Lake Victoria is among the world’s largest and most productive freshwater ecosystems, and supports 40 million people, through food supply and livelihoods.


2021 Human Wrongs Watch

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