Walking on water? Meet the boat being built of old flip flops

Have you heard the one about a boat made out of discarded flip flops? Nope, not a joke, more an impressive African project that's setting sail to highlight how far plastic waste travels and the beaches and marine life it impacts. Jane Dunford fills us in.

We independently research all featured brands and products. To avoid waste, we test products on an as needed basis. This post contains affiliate links. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a small commission. Learn more about why we do this here.

It was on a beach in Zanzibar that Ben Morison had his ‘plastic revolution’ idea.

The tour operator was struck by the number of flip-flops and bits of plastic waste floating in the sea and washed up along the shore – a reality that didn’t match the idyll he was selling his customers.

“I realised much of it had floated across the ocean from India and wanted to glue it all together and make a boat to sail away,” he said.

It was a random thought, but one that was to grow into the hugely ambitious FlipFlopi Expedition project. 

Based on Lamu in Kenya, Morison and his team are building a 60ft traditional Swahili dhow out of 60 tonnes of recycled plastic bottles and bags and 200,000 discarded flip-flops.

The boat – a world first – will sail 5,000km along the coast from Kenya to Cape Town, sharing solutions and changing mindsets about single use plastic along the way.

“The main goal is to communicate that single use plastic just doesn’t make sense,” said Morison. “It’s polluting the oceans, killing wildlife, littering beaches – we have to do things differently.”

Morison, a Somali-Brit who grew up in Kenya, determined that sustainability would be at the heart of the initiative, working with local people and using only local technology.

The boatbuilding team is headed up by Ali Skanda, who comes from a long line of dhow craftsmen. All the plastic has been collected on beaches and towns in Kenya by volunteers and is sorted and shredded before being turned into planks at a recycling plant in Nairobi.

“The DNA and drive of this project had to be local,” said Morison, “They own it… it’s not about well-intentioned westerners helicoptering in.”

An initial smaller prototype boat is nearing completion and will set sail to Zanzibar next month – with work starting on the big ship imminently and a launch of late 2019 likely.

Precious Plastic – an organisation which offers practical recycling advice – will be on board with affordable machinery to show locals how they can turn plastic waste into materials for craftwork.

Tourists can visit the boatyard to see the boatbuilders in action and there may even be spaces for paying crew on the voyage to Cape Town.

Awareness of the global plastic problem has exploded over recent years – thanks in part to Attenborough’s Blue Planet.

The fact that 12 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year and that by 2050 the ration of plastic to fish could be 1:1 has been widely reported.

But for Morison, a key aim is to get his message to those who have probably never heard of Sir David and may never have seen the sea.

“It’s great we’re all talking about the plastic problem now,” said Morison, “but the explosion of mass consumers is in emerging markets – Southeast Asia, China, India, as well as Africa. Why shouldn’t they be buying bottled water and plastic-covered produce? It’s a sign of their increasing affluence – but we need to communicate to them that single use plastic is harmful and to encourage recycling and demonstrate solutions.”

With its brightly-coloured, Elmer the Elephant flip-flop exterior, the dhow is certainly attracting attention – with celebrities including Kenyan rapper Juliani helping to spread the word.

“We want to give a positive message that the plastic polluting the ocean can be put to good use,” said Morison. “The boat looks fun too – it just makes people smile.”

Follow the adventures of FlipFlopi on Instagram here or find out more here. You can donate between $10 and $50 to help the boat set sail.