Flip-flops are suffocating the sea. But this sculptor can turn your old shoes into art


Flip-flop art looks better than it sounds. Davis Ndungu’s colourful figures of animals are mesmerising. But their most remarkable characteristic is the artist’s medium of choice – old shoes. Every year, thousands of flip-flops end up in the ocean. Most are made of polyurethane rubber, a non-biodegradable material that’s toxic to marine life. “It is important for us to ask ourselves where the things we discard go to,” Ndungu says. When these sandals wash up on shore, they also disrupt the breeding habitats of sea creatures. To remind us of their plight, Ndungu is using recycled shoes to carve out thought-provoking sculptures.

Originally a woodworker, Ndungu was embarrassed to craft with forgotten footwear. But the ingenuity of his vivid creations gained so much attention that he soon began sculpting with pride. “I realised that the work I was doing was creating a lasting impact on people’s lives and the environment,” Ndungu says. Every month, over 500 worn out flip-flops pass through his Cape Town studio. The donated shoes are cleaned before Ndungu sands them down and binds them to form multicoloured blocks. Slicing through the sponge, he creates a variety of animals with intricate finishes, from tiny warthogs and penguins to lions with bushy manes.

Using flip-flops, Ndungu has found a quirky way to raise awareness of waste while celebrating South Africa’s fauna. Having produced life-sized sculptures, each made with hundreds of shoes, he now plans to add a range of furniture to his work. “I love what I’m doing because I can see the difference I’m making,” Ndungu says. Thanks to artists like him, we can tread a responsible path and reduce pollution in our seas.