Turn­ing trash into fash­ion, Ma­rina De­Bris is an in­spi­ra­tion to those who care for the ocean.

En­vi­ron­men­tal artist and de­signer Ma­rina De­Bris is rais­ing aware­ness about sea pol­lu­tion. She tells Anand Raj OK how she fash­ions dresses and in­stal­la­tions out of the abun­dant ma­rine trash on the world’s beaches

Friday - - Contents -

‘No, but thank you very much,’ says Ma­rina De­Bris. ‘I’ve got my own.’

We are at the snack bar at the Cul­tureSum­mit 2017 held at Ma­narat Al Saadiyat in Abu Dhabi and the staff are of­fer­ing Ma­rina a set of plas­tic cut­lery.

Ma­rina smiles as she taps the lit­tle pouch that dan­gles from a clip at­tached to her back­pack. ‘I carry this around with me wher­ever I go,’ she says. Inside the pouch is a set of wooden cut­lery – knife, fork, spoon – and a me­tal straw. ‘I usu­ally take my cup as well but I for­got it to­day in my ho­tel room,’ she says.

Ma­rina De­Bris has adopted a pseu­do­nym to re­flect her work – she’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal artist and de­signer who reuses ma­rine trash to raise aware­ness about beach pol­lu­tion. Work­ing in Australia and the US, the pas­sion­ate artist was one of the in­vi­tees at the in­ter­na­tional sum­mit held ear­lier this month in the cap­i­tal. It brought to­gether state lead­ers and change-mak­ers from the world of the arts and 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.’

Cre­ator of the web­site Washed Up: Pol­lu­tion Re­born as Art, 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 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 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 true when she met a group of Aus­tralians by sheer chance. ‘So I went vis­it­ing them and the coun­try… and ended up liv­ing on Bondi Beach in Syd­ney,’ she says, a smile play­ing on her face.

She set up a graphic de­sign busi­ness there. ‘I wasn’t even re­motely into any en­vi­ron­ment is­sues,’ she says. That was 18 years ago.

But she used to run on the beach ev­ery day and would reg­u­larly see trash washed up on the sands. ‘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. It just irked me ter­ri­bly,’ 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 started col­lect­ing ma­rine trash – but didn’t 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 – doll parts, bits of foam, in­ter­est­ing pieces of waste – dis­pos­ing all 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.’ Her works also in­clude fish tanks, dec­o­ra­tive art and in­stal­la­tions – some of which are sure to raise a chuckle.

‘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.


ut is there a dan­ger of people just laugh­ing and for­get­ting to take home the mes­sage? The de­signer, listed among one of the 30 most in­flu­en­tial women in the arts, 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.’

She reg­u­larly or­gan­ises fundrais­ers for non-prof­its, in­clud­ing one called 5 Gyres, an or­gan­i­sa­tion that cham­pi­ons re­duc­tion of plas­tics pol­lu­tion. ‘See, I’m wear­ing their T-shirt,’ she says, point­ing 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 few 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 prac­tises 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

‘I’ve seen people buy BA­NANAS, even CO­CONUTS, wrapped in CEL­LO­PHANE or in plas­tic bags. Why would you want to do that? Ba­nanas and co­conuts al­ready have a cover – a NAT­U­RAL COVER’

un­der ex­treme con­di­tions when there is ab­so­lutely no other way 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.’

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.’ And the enor­mity of the sit­u­a­tion is start­ing to be recog­nised. ‘If you’re 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.


arina cites a re­port that 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.

She also believe pro­duc­ers need to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for prod­ucts and 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 – a ma­jor step for­ward, she be­lieves.

‘Charg­ing people for plas­tic bags is also a good way to de­ter people from wast­ing. If people know that they may have to pay for a bag then they will bring their own or will re­use bags,’ says Ma­rina.

She also in­sists that con­sumers need to be more pru­dent. ‘I’ve seen people buy ba­nanas, even co­conuts, wrapped in cel­lo­phane or in plas­tic

‘If you eat 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’

bags. Why would you want to do that? Ba­nanas and co­conuts al­ready have a cover – a nat­u­ral cover.’

She would be happy if she runs out of ma­te­ri­als to work with, she says. ‘Right now though, there’s enough to work on for sev­eral decades.’

What’s the best com­pli­ment she’s 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,’ she says. Ma­rina now serves on var­i­ous in­ter­na­tional pan­els to dis­cuss how artists can con­trib­ute to en­vi­ron­men­tal pub­lic pol­icy.

She pauses to brush back a lock of hair that’s fallen over her eye. ‘Ahh, the best com­pli­ment I re­ceived? Some­one once came over af­ter see­ing a work of mine and said: “That’s beau­ti­ful… and dis­gust­ing”. That is my favourite com­pli­ment.’


Ma­rina (above left) clothes mod­els in pieces made com­pletely of ma­rine trash. Be­low: The rub­bish-filled Aquar­ium of the Pacific Gyre

Ma­rina fash­ions stun­ning bits of art out of trash. Right, a piece called Lun­cheon, and be­low, Sculpture By The Sea

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