One woman's journey to a zero-waste lifestyle
Mariska Nell is spinning around her living room in a dress. However this dress wouldn’t make it onto most catwalks, given that it is see-through, groaning with trash and weighs, she says, “about 65kg, fully-filled – it gives me serious backache”.
The dress is not, of course, really meant for the Milan runways. It is instead the embodiment of the modern consumer – realised in one rather ugly garment. “There’s a guy called Rob Greenfield who had a challenge called Trash Me, where he wore a suit created by his own trash,” says Mariska, now de-frocked and curled up on a couch at her apartment in Dubai. “I saw it and thought, this is unbelievable. We have to try this.” Nell and fellow Dubai resident Marita Peters made up their own version of the challenge, with Marita wearing the waste created by an eco-conscious citizen whilst
Nell created the average daily waste of a global citizen – up to three kilograms. They stuck together, but made different choices. At cafes, Peters opted for ceramics or brought her own reusable cups, while Nell got lattes in a take-away. As a dedicated zero-waste consumer, it proved a difficult change.
“Takeaway cups were one of the things that irritated me the most,” she says. “The cardboard has a plastic layer inside of it which is super hard for recycling companies to separate – and not many of them do. It’s like me telling you to make me an omelette and once it’s in the pan, telling you to change it to egg whites only!” Nell persisted, and after the 30 days was up, filmed the end results. Peters floated and spun in a dress that weighed just four kilograms. Nell’s dress weighed fifteen times that. “The only moment people realise how much they throw away is when they see it,” she says.
Nell has been on her own zero-waste journey for the last two years. Originally an interior designer, she stumbled into the movement when up- cycling a lamp with old coffee capsules. It was the start of a journey that has seen her sell ‘trash to treasure’ creations to celebrities including Trevor Noah and Adrian Grenier, start her own podcast, Mama Earth Talk, and start a consultancy firm and online store, Waste Me Not.Looking around her apartment is wholly satisfying, in a circle of life kind of way. Everything has its place; everything exists for a purpose – but it is not clinical. Trash supplied by friends awaits its creation into art; coffee water is fed to the orchids on the windowsill. “They’re now in their fourth year,” she nods appreciatively. Beeswax paper lies in a drawer, ready to wrap granola bars she buys (sans packaging) from Baker & Spice.
Her wardrobe is one of the most impressive pieces of the puzzle, coming in at a resounding ten items. “It’s looking quite sad, isn’t it,” she laughs. One of Nell’s recent eco-forays has been into fashion, after watching “True Cost” on Netflix, about the effects of fast fashion.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” she says. “I’m going and buying clothing at these fast fashion brands and having to replace them every few months because the shirt is full of holes, or the shoes are worn out. I’ve realised that when you pay for a piece of clothing, there’s always an expensive price tag. Sometimes you pay it, other times, it’s the environment.”
But the road to zero-waste fashion is convoluted, with beliefs being upended all the time. Save on that Asos delivery and go to a mall instead, we think – but then an MIT study shows the energy costs of bricks and mortar can often outweigh those of online shopping. Okay, then I’ll thrift, we think – but that can have serious implications for the third world countries donations often end up in. In the US, only one per cent of donated clothing is suitable for sale in thrift stores, leaving the rest to be sold for export, and often hurting local textile industries. In the UAE, there is still a way to go. Nell is trying to restock her wardrobe with sustainable fashion, and mentions how hard it was to find a local stylist that was open to sourcing 100 per cent ethical brands. But, as she reels off local designers and programmes that are seeking to do good, she is confident that the future for zero waste in the UAE is bright. Every single day, we as consumers have power,” she concludes. “Support local designers, take that reusable cup. We need to start making choices with our money – and if it means that we don’t support a company because their ethics aren’t the same as ours? So be it.”