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
‘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