PATTANI, Thailand: It was a journey that began five years ago on the islands of Satun, with 100,000 flip-flops and sandals that had been spat out by the sea and washed ashore.
It was not known where this debris had come from or how far it had travelled before reaching some of the most beautiful beaches in southern Thailand.
It took three months of daily work for all of it to be collected by environmental volunteers in a group called Trash Hero. All of them were crammed into the back of a lorry – a pile of marine trash heading for a new life in Pattani, hundreds of kilometres away.
These discarded shoes may have been unwanted before, but someone wanted them now.
“I contacted them to ask for some ocean waste we were experimenting with,” said Nattapong Nithi-Uthai, a lecturer at the Faculty of Science and Technology of Prince of Songkla University in Pattani province. He teaches at the Department of Rubber and Polymer Technology.
When the shoes arrived at his house, he was stunned. Tens of thousands of flip-flops brought together from the sea were piled on top of one another in a ten-wheeled truck – dirty, mismatched and worthless.
The sight struck Nattapong, as he realised the shocking multitude of ocean debris.
“They said they had collected 80,000kg of marine trash in three months and that my part alone weighed 8,000kg, including some 100,000 pieces of shoe,” he said.
I didn’t picture there’d be so much ocean waste. It’s unimaginable when you don’t see it with your own eyes.
The mountain of flip-flops in front of his house and the underlying reality of marine trash motivated Nattapong to seek a solution.
At that time, he was coaching a team of students to upcycle waste as part of the Thai Young Leaders Programme under One Young World – an annual global event that brings together young talent from various countries and sectors to create social impact through initiatives and new ventures.
His team chose to develop a business model that would turn discarded flip-flops from Thai beaches into new ones of higher quality and value. The project was called Tlejourn. It means ‘wandering across the sea’ in Thai.
Today, Tlejourn has grown into a social enterprise that not only recycles ocean waste but also supports the local economy and raises awareness about marine debris through its products – flip-flops.
Their signature is a colourful insole made of tiny pieces of discarded shoes. Each one of them is unique and carries a message about the waste problem.
“Our solution isn’t about technology but rather mindset,” Nattapong said.
“Waste shouldn’t only be used as a filler. It should be turned into a new product because a product can sell and requires a raw material. So if we use waste as raw material, its commercial function can drive its utilisation.”
"TLEJOURN": WALK WITH A STORY
Thailand is facing a serious environmental challenge caused by millions of tonnes of plastic waste. In fact, it is the fifth biggest contributor in the world to ocean debris.
According to a 2015 report by environmental advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, more than half of plastic waste in the ocean originated from China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand.
“Unless steps are taken to manage this waste properly, by 2025 the ocean could contain one tonne of plastic for every three tonnes of finfish - an unthinkable outcome,” the report added.
READ: Commentary - Recycle or reduce waste? Why Southeast Asia’s ocean plastic pile has no easy answers
Earlier this month, the Thai environment minister called for action to tackle environmental challenges the country is facing.
“It is time we came together to do something. Somehow along the way, from now on, we have to make sure people in this world realise if we don’t do something about our environment, our nature, our natural resources, we won’t survive. We will not prevail,” said Varawut Silpa-archa in an address to politicians, diplomats and journalists in an event in Bangkok.
The magnitude of waste in the ocean has made many Thais more eco-conscious. In recent years, products made with recycled materials have become increasingly common in local stores.
Tlejourn flip-flops are known among environmentalists and fashion brand owners wishing to share the start-up’s story through their products and do something for the environment. Currently, the social enterprise has more than 20,000 followers on its Facebook page, and the number is growing.
Unlike other shoe brands, however, Tlejourn does not promote comfort or design but rather a story about waste and what consumers can do for the environment and society.
“Our story is the real product,” said Nattapong.
For every step we’ve taken to develop, our product is our story, completely. We crafted our story before we even designed our shoe model.
The social enterprise partners with a global network of environmentalists from Trash Hero to source key raw materials – discarded flip-flops – for its production.
Trash Hero is a non-profit volunteer-based group. It was formed on the island of Lipe in Satun before expanding across Southeast Asia and into Australia, Europe and the United States.
It has worked with more than 330,000 volunteers worldwide and collected around 1.65 million kg of garbage, including at least 36 million plastic bottles.
“We don’t pick up trash to make it clean but we do it to clean our mind, to stop creating waste in the future, and to be aware of where trash comes from,” said Nattapong, who also supervises Trash Hero’s networks in Thailand.
“People who pick up trash wouldn’t want to create waste. They’d be highly aware. We want to build this group of people to change society on a wider scale.”
Every week, "trash heroes" across Thailand gather to collect garbage. Discarded shoe are separated and transported to Tlejourn’s production base in Pattani for recycling.
They are cleaned, shredded and mixed with polymer glue, then compressed and moulded into sheets. Afterwards, soles of different sizes are cut out. Whatever remains re-enters the same recycling process to produce other pairs of soles.
The materials are then transported to a small village in Klong Maning, where a group of shoemakers assemble the flip-flops and package them by hand, ready for distribution. They are available in different models, with prices ranging from 399 baht to 1,980 baht (US$13 to US$64).
READ: Atlantic plastic levels far higher than thought, according to study
FROM TRASH TO FAIR TRADE
Over the past five years, Tlejourn has offered tonnes of waste a new life and purpose by giving it commercial value. Its flip-flops are for sale at several retailers in Thailand. The enterprise has also collaborated with other shoe brands to convey its message to more consumers.
But for its creators, the goal is not clean beaches and oceans or business expansion. What they want to see is an organic change in public mindset, not only about waste and the environment but also about how enterprises could shift priorities to help reshape society for the better.
“We want a social enterprise that goes beyond the boundary a little – one with an ideal and to not just be another non-profit body,” Nattapong said.
The result is a zero-profit business model that strives to reduce social inequality and promote fair trade. It seeks to empower local artisans with limited job opportunities, preserve their traditional livelihoods, and provide extra income.
Each pair of flip-flops has a fixed price that can be equally divided by three. The first part covers the costs of transport and recycling. The second part goes to local villagers who assemble the shoes. The third part is a fixed amount of profit for retail stores that sell Tlejourn flip-flops at a regulated price.
“This reduces inequality because normally, when a business grows, we’ll see a gap between CEOs and labourers. That gap always grows. But with our model, it won’t happen because we move in parallel,” Nattapong said.
If we look at labour in any business, it’s on the wrong side of the account book. Labour is an expense, excluded from the partnership. So, from an entrepreneur’s or an industrialist’s perspective, it’s clear they have to lower it.
Tlejourn built a training and production centre in a local village of Klong Maning. The space is open to public and welcomes anyone who wishes to earn extra income by assembling flip-flops.
“I have a small child and other children I need to send to school,” said villager Rohaning Palaya, 32. “I have to stay at home. So I do this job because it allows me to take care of my child.”
With precision, she punctures holes for shoe straps with a hammer while her friend glues the soles together. For five years now, they have been earning extra income from making flip-flops without having to travel far for work in the city.
Rohaning is one of a few women in the village who work with Tlejourn. They share a similar lifestyle that requires them to take care of young children and the elderly at home.
Before the social enterprise was created, a number of women in the village were jobless and had to rely on their husbands for financial support. Today, with the extra income from shoe-making, their life has improved.
“The job gives extra income to people in the community,” Rohaning said. “My life has changed for the better.”
Away from her village, trash is scattered along the beaches of Pattani – plastic bags, bottles, used diapers, lighters and dirty flip-flops washed up by the ocean waves.
Some of it will be picked up by trash heroes when they gather for the week. But more will gather from the incoming waves, day after day, unless environmental solutions like this can finally break the cycle of waste.