Updated: Feb 26
A couple of weeks ago, while walking down the streets of Amman, Jordan, I spotted a cat with a yellow dress...
I took out my phone to snap a picture only to realize that the yellow dress was a plastic bag that the cat was entangled in.
My name is Dina, Dina Altarawneh, but you can just call me Dina because usually no one is able to pronounce my family name right, well unless they’re Jordanian. In that case, I should probably tell you I don’t fancy Mansaf (the traditional dish made with meat and yoghurt). Partly because I’m vegan and partly because … well let’s keep it at that.
I graduated in 2019 with a degree in Biological Sciences from Carnegie Mellon university, where I currently work as a research assistant.
Frogs in the Forest
From an early age, I have always found my escape in nature, I’d sneak out to play with stray cats, ride horses, climb rocks and collect pine cones and frogs (I released them, I promise) from the forest outside my grandma’s house. Yet, in a parallel forest outside someone else’s house, life was not so quaint. How can we feel the urge to fix a problem if we routinely wake up, take a glance outside our window, and everything appears fine? We routinely post slogans on our social media in solidarity with the burning rainforests, retreating icebergs and extincting wildlife… Yet for us, these events are distant, intangible; they do not touch our day-to-day life. Recently it dawned on me that every part of our existence is tied to earth.
In 2014, my sister Lina and I saw plastic litter scattered throughout a beautiful island in Qatar, where mangrove trees grow, flamingos migrate to, fish and crabs seek shelter in… We went back home after cleaning up the area. We drank water from our plastic bottles and shopped for dinner using plastic bags. It took many trips to various beaches around Qatar to realize that there was no magical place called ‘away’; when we throw something away in the trash, it ends up somewhere, and in the case of plastic, it lives longer than us. Your diapers from 1986 are still cruising around…
In 2015, Lina and I co-founded the nonprofit Green Mangroves. We take people on kayaking trips and occasionally do beach cleanups, but our main mission is to link our consumption with where it ends up. We view the root of the problem as our daily subconscious consumption of single use coffee cups, straws, plastic bags and plastic-infused cosmetics and toiletries…. Once we establish the awareness of this issue, the next step is to address the problem of convenience: going low-waste will require some planning. To me, low waste was a journey I embarked on with baby steps.
What Happened on my 18th Birthday
Now I am no birthday-party fan, in fact, I used to crawl under a table to avoid attention (or to play with a pup and whisper the daily mantra to him: you is kind, you is smart and you is important). My 18th birthday was no different, I sighed (for the 18th time) because I was not surprised with “happy birthday” shouts from a darkened room or cameras pointing awkwardly in my face. On that day, I decided to go vegan (plant-based diet where no animal products are consumed). At first it was an emotional reaction to the truth behind the meat and dairy industries, but having made that choice to care about animals and my health, I noticed other mishaps in the world that were worth the attention too: mass-consumption, fast fashion, climate change … One thing leads to the other, but they were all results of what I like to call ‘ignorance bless’; this is me sitting on the beach sipping juice in a plastic straw, not knowing which animal will ingest it. If it is not ignorance bless that’s behind our collapsing world, then the other reason can be summed up in one word: Greed.
Questions were dwelling in my head: does the cheap price tag reflect the true value of the items we buy? How do cows produce milk year round? what happens to the baby calves if we’re drinking their mom’s milk? Does the banana peel actually decompose in a dumpster? Will this really get recycled? Is that worker who made my designer bag receiving a fair wage? What does this food do to my body?
I’m happy to say that there’s only one very simple answer to all the questions: Google it!
Yes, because we are very privileged: we have access to limitless information one click away, and we must use this privilege wisely. It all starts with a tad bit of curiosity and maybe a little bit of caring towards our planet and people, we just have to start somewhere. It could be the mere realization that a coffee cup is not a sign of luxury and that sometimes less is more. I try to live by this concept; anyone who sees me on a daily basis knows my love for simplicity, as depicted in the limited wardrobe options. I only buy what I need and I found that I didn’t need a single new piece of clothing in two years. I have eliminated items that don’t make my heart happy or my vegan soul dance with joy: clothes, makeup, footwear and accessories, skin-care products. I questioned my need for a 5-step nighttime routine, the trendy summer dresses and all the magic potions made in plastic bottles that claim to give a ‘Hollywood smile’. I slowly made the switch to plastic-free options which turned out to be better for my health, the animals (google animal testing…) and for the environment.
Bikes and Prayers
Mom hopped aboard the sustainability express and started making her own natural and package free soaps… If you’re like me, a novice in soap making, then let’s just hold hands and walk the isles of Lush (a cruelty-free and eco-friendly cosmetics store) and shop for natural shampoo bars together. Despite the very primitive soap-making skills, I did not relent. I am currently mapping my route to bike to work (whilst praying not to get run over by confused drivers). I have been happily feasting on freshly mowed grass (not really what vegans eat) for three years now, and I’m even happier to think I did not contribute to the animal agriculture industries that abuse animals, burn forests and strip soils. I eat out less and cook more, avoiding the plastic cutlery and takeaway packaging, and of course it’s a ‘No No’ to plastic water bottles. I hold onto my reusable coffee cup like a puppy to a bone and I enjoy my grocery shopping with the bags mom sewed from excess curtain fabric (which you can totally get from many online shops in Qatar like root.qa on instagram, but we love us some DIY family time).
As a family striving to lower their negative impact on earth, we are still far from perfect. Going low waste isn’t about one person doing it perfectly, rather, it’s about many doing it imperfectly.
Before I share with you my low-waste journey starter, I’d like to bust the ‘recycling’ myth that all of us are raving about these days. Picture a bathtub flooding and a whole house drowning in water, while the tap is still open. Would you grab a bucket and start taking the water outside, or close the tap before anything else? My logical reasoning (not to be measured by my score in pre-college standardized exams) will scream: ‘close that tap smarty pants!’. Why do we choose to recycle (empty the water in buckets) instead of cutting the problem from its roots (closing the tap of plastic purchases)? Recycling can be the biggest deception, not only because most items we put for recycling are non-recyclable, but also because recycling do not solve a problem, all it does is satisfy our ego. So what do we do? Well, here’s your ultimate 6-step guide for a low-waste living; why not try this for a week:
1. Go grocery shopping with a neat set of reusable bags, they’ll look good on you (find great and affordable ones at root.qa)
2. Ditch the plastic water bottles, please?
3. Do you really need to suck? You can easily drink without a straw. If you really can’t then opt for reusable straws instead (can be found at root.qa)
4.Yes you need your caffeine (not really but we’ll skip the fact that our species just love anything addictive) and you can still get your morning fix, but try to bring your own reusable cup.
5. Start a meat-free Monday habit, and work your way up (up meaning less cadavers consumed per week.
6. Smile while doing steps 1,2,3,4 and don’t hate me for 5. It helps to think of the baby calf you’ll save from unconditional suffering…
Now I’m not saying it’ll all be sunshine and rainbows when (if) you decide to go low waste: there’s times when the shopkeepers will not like your jars or cloth bags, days when you really want the coffee but forgot your reusable cup, and hours where you might drown in a sea of your own tears thinking how insignificant you are. BUT, there’ll be days when you’ll see the impact, when the turtles come at you to thank you (in a dream), the oceans you swim in have more fish than plastic and your grandkids won’t be trapped on a depleted planet. And to be less dramatic, here’s what will actually happen: people will ask you in the supermarket where you got these cool bags from, and you’ll reply saying “mom made them from extra curtain fabric” or you’ll walk down the street to see more green and less cats stuck in yellow plastic ‘dresses’.
Back to the Yellow Dress
If you were wondering what happened to the cat in yellow dress -plastic bag- I think she found help from kind shopkeepers who promised to take the bag off. If there’s one thing I’d like for you to remember, it’d be this: don’t underestimate the power of one. What will one plastic bag do to the environment? Said 7 billion people.