‘No, but thank you very much,’ says Marina DeBris. ‘I’ve got my own.’
We are at the snack bar of the CultureSummit 2017 (CORR) at Manarat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi, picking up a few bites before sitting down for an interview, when the staff offer Marina a set of single-use cutlery.
Politely turning down the offer, Marina smiles as she taps the little pouch that dangles from a clip attached to her back pack. ‘I carry this around with me wherever I go,’ she says. Inside the pouch is a set of wooden cutlery – a knife, fork, spoon and a metal straw. ‘I usually take along my cup as well but I forgot it today in my hotel room,’ she says, a tad downcast.
Dressed simply in a pair of drainpipe trousers, a T-shirt and a jacket, Marina is an environmental artist and designer who reuses marine trash to raise awareness about beach pollution. Working in Australia and the US, the passionate artist is one of the invitees at the international summit in the capital that earlier this month brought together state leaders and changemakers from the world of the arts and the media to discuss the role culture can play in addressing some of the most pressing challenges of our time.
‘My mission is to leave as small a carbon footprint as possible,’ says Marina, running her fingers through her platinum blonde hair, a few locks coloured green and blue. ‘But I still have a pretty large one, I guess.’
The creator of the website Washed Up: Pollution Reborn as Art, which showcases her work, Marina is a passionate advocate of the need to reduce or eliminate single-use plastics from the environment.
Raised in Detroit and New York, Marina who adopted her pseudonym to reflect the kind of work she does, and admits that she ‘loved the city life’. But she also loved art and design, so after dabbling in metal smithing initially, she enrolled for a course in graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design before landing a job in New York. However, she was not one to put down her roots in a city.
‘I’d been living and working in New York but I guess because I’m a Piscean, I’ve always loved the sea and yearned to live on a beach,’ she says.
Her dream came to fruition when by sheer chance she happened to meet a group of Australians. ‘So I went visiting them and the country … and ended up living on Bondi Beach in Sydney,’ she says, a shy smile playing on her face.
She set up a graphic design business there but at that time ‘I wasn’t even remotely into any environment issues,’ she says. That was 18 years ago.
Marina, as part of her fitness routine, used to run on the beach every day and would regularly see trash being washed up on the sands. ‘But one day it was like a switch flipped in my head. I wondered how it became acceptable for people to throw rubbish so indiscriminately; it gets into the water and then gets washed up on beaches,’ she says.
Upset that marine pollution was not being talked about and discussed at any level, ‘at least not as much as it is now’ and keen to do her bit for the earth, the designer initially started collecting the marine trash but did not know what to do with a lot of it. ‘Typical trash, which is universal and which washes up on the beaches, is single-use plastics – things like drinking straws, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, single-use utensils, plastic bags, toys… things that people in first world countries don’t have to be using so much.’
She kept a few things, like doll parts, bits of foam, interesting pieces of waste, disposing the remaining trash sensibly. ‘Then seven years ago, almost impulsively, I decided to make art out of the pieces I’d been collecting,’ she says.
Marina attributes the impulse to sheer frustration. ‘I really didn’t known what else I could do. As a graphic designer if I’m going to be creating something it’s got to deliver a message. I wanted to somehow express this issue of marine pollution. That was the challenge. It sort of started from there,’ she says.
What she also got started on was ‘trashion’ - a portmanteau of trash and fashion. ‘A lot of my art is about and from trash, and what I’m well-known for is making wearable pieces out of trash,’ says the artist, whose eye-catching works include fish tanks, decorative art and sculptures.
‘I prefer using humour to startle viewers into taking a closer look at things we usually ignore,’ she says.
Her ‘Aquarium of the Pacific Gyre’ is a case in point. Essentially a giant aquarium filled with trash collected from beaches, it was created to draw attention to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – a system of ocean currents in the Pacific Ocean that has extremely high concentrations of plastics, chemical sludge and other debris. After filling the tank with trash, she went on to give individual pieces of trash scientific sounding names such as ‘Mollusca Styro Crapa’ and ‘Bottlopia’.
‘It was tongue-in-cheek,’ she admits, with a laugh.
But is there a danger of people just laughing and forgetting to take home the message?
The designer, listed among one of 30 most influential women in the arts, along with icons such as Annie Leibovitz, Kathryn Bigelow and Vivienne Westwood, does not think so.
‘For a start, humour engages people,’ says Marina. ‘The other thing is not to be really preachy about it, which I tend to be when I speak. With my work, I can interject a sense of humour and it definitely attracts more people and they look at it and are interested in it.
‘They laugh at first, then they stop and say “wait, it’s not funny, it’s a problem.” It’s a great way to engage people. That’s something I truly enjoy doing.’
Marina, whose trashion shows and art pieces have been featured worldwide, regularly organises events to raise funds for various non-profits including one called 5 Gyres, an organisation that champions to reduce plastics pollution. ‘See, I’m wearing their T-shirt,’ she says, pointing out to a 5 Gyres badge on her sleeve.
Over the years, has she witnessed a change in people’s attitudes towards trash and single-use plastics?
‘I think change is really slow,’ she says.
‘I’ve had people tell me “you’ve changed my habits” and that is incredible, because that’s the aim.’
Marina mentions a trashion show at Bondi Beach at which she was speaking a couple of months ago. ‘A couple of thousand visitors were there and I was wondering whether the message about protecting the environment was really reaching the average person. But I was pleasantly surprised when a lot of people walked up to me and said “I had no idea this is actually a problem and this is kind of upsetting”.
‘That was an incredible experience; to know for a start that people were beginning to understand the issue... that my work was conveying something and making people realise the dangers of pollution.’
An eco-warrior who practices what she preaches, she says: ‘It makes me crazy if I see myself wasting something. It’s not that I go to the raving extreme or out of my way. I carry around my own cutlery, metal water bottle and a cup. Of course, there have been instances when I’ve had to use plastic but I do it only under extreme conditions when there is absolutely no other way to and if I’m very hungry.
‘The point is, it is easy to reduce your carbon footprint; carrying a packet of wooden cutlery and a steel straw is hardly a problem. It fits in neatly into your bag. But sadly it’s not something everyone agrees to or starts following. It needs to be made cool. And convenient.’
Marina is upset that the issue of marine pollution was largely brushed under the carpet for several years. ‘People simply kept ignoring it. The good thing is that now it is being talked about. It deserves to be,’ she says.
The enormity of the situation is now being recognised. ‘If you are eating a lot of seafood, you could be ingesting some amount of toxins as well, because most fish end up consuming plastic and other pollutants along with their regular foods,’ she says.
Marina quotes a report which says that by 2050 there will be more plastic than plankton in the oceans. ‘Imagine what that means to the marine life and to us,’ she says, offering a few suggestions on how the issue can be tackled.
‘Having a pack of cutlery like this is one way, I guess,’ she says.
She also believes in producer responsibility, where the producers need to take more responsibility for the products and the packing. ‘The manufacturers need to be responsible for the end gain of the waste generated by their products. They need to know how to get it back and not have it go to a landfill,’ she says.
Certain countries have brought in legislation banning thin plastic bags. That was a major step forward, she believes.
‘Charging people for plastic bags is also a good way to deter people from wasting. If people believe that they may have to pay for a bag then they will bring their own or will reuse bags,’ says Marina.
While she attempts to pin the onus on reducing waste on manufacturers she also insists that consumers need to be more prudent. ‘I’ve seen people buy bananas even coconuts wrapped in cellophane or in plastic bags. Why would you want to do that, because bananas and coconuts already have a cover – a natural cover.’
An artist who says she would be happy if she runs of materials to work with, she however adds, ‘right now though, there’s enough to work on for several decades.’
What’s the best compliment that she has received for her work?
‘I actually don’t like it when someone says ‘That’s beautiful’ because it’s not good for the issue. It’s nice to hear and I may have accomplished something. But what I want people to notice is the trash,’ says Marina, who is on international panels to discuss how artists can contribute to environmental public policy.
She pauses to brush back a lock of hair that falls over her eye. ‘Ahh, the best compliment I received? Someone once came over after seeing a work of mine and told: ‘That’s beautiful .. and disgusting.’ That is my favourite compliment.’