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Dirty Girls: the story of how to upcycle in an emergency

Dirty Girls: the story of how to upcycle in an emergency

‘Waste not, want not’ – the old adage is possibly truer than it has ever been on a global scale, as the world battles pollution and the ever-increasing impact of climate change.

In fact, the UN describes climate change as the ‘defining issue of our time’, with the effects of global warming already wreaking havoc around the world.

But as millions of people are left displaced - by war, poverty and climate-related disasters – there are also those doing their best to save Planet Earth.

And many, like Australian-born Alison Terry-Evans, have proven that these global efforts don’t need to stop in times of crisis.

For her, it all started on a beach back in 2015, as she rushed to the shores of the Greek islands to help hundreds of thousands of survivors fleeing war-torn countries like Syria.

But when Alison, who had been spending time on the island of Lesvos, met the boats, she realised just how much waste was being left behind, as volunteers waited with a change of clothes and open arms for people who were in desperate need of help.

The change of clothes wasn’t the problem, though – it was what happened to the old ones after.

Alison said: “People were arriving with sea-drenched clothes after the treacherous journey from Turkey to Greece aboard overcrowded, inadequate boats.

“I was astonished to see that, after exchanging wet clothes for dry, donated clothes, their perfectly good clothes were trashed. The clothes of thousands of people were trashed each day! 

“I knew immediately that I was going to stop the trashing because it made no sense environmentally or economically.”

Meanwhile, on arrival at the camps, refugees were given at least one blanket - which meant that thousands of blankets were being distributed each day - and most were left behind when people continued their journeys (usually less than a week later).

Destined for landfill, Alison decided to collect and wash them instead. And that’s where Dirty Girls of Lesvos began.

Within weeks, what had started as Alison sourcing an industrial laundry to wash some clothes, had suddenly become a fully-fledged organisation supporting refugees, all underpinned by an environmental ethos.

And, with a catchy name, Dirty Girls soon became widely recognised in the media as an organisation addressing both humanitarian and environmental issues, with people rushing to collect up clothes and blankets to take to laundry, wash to hospital standards and make ready for re-use.

Alison said: “Suddenly it was appealing to be a Dirty Girl gathering and sorting dirty clothes and blankets for the laundry.

“The refugees were grateful to be offered the washed clothes because they were more size, modesty and style-appropriate than many of the donated clothes.”

Today, Dirty Girls has saved more than 1,200 tonnes of material from going to landfill, with the help of three huge commercial laundriAlison said: “It’s mostly about logistics, except when blankets have been thrown in trash bins and we need to retrieve them.”

It should also be noted that, thanks to Dirty Girls, the Government and larger non-government organisations, who generally tend to replace rather than re-use, have been able to save millions of euros.

Alison continued: “A new blanket costs more than seven euros (plus the environmental cost of trashing the one it is replacing). Washing one cost two euros fifty and it gives employment to local people.”

Her work doesn’t stop there, though.

Pic: Dirty Girls of Less

For the items that can’t be returned or re-used, Alison and her team set about making sure they can at least be upcycled into something new, which can then be used as support or sold to make money for struggling refugees – from temporary mattresses to messenger bags and solidarity bracelets.

They’ve even teamed up with our very own social enterprise Love Welcomes, who have now been able to help more than 40 refugee women start re-building their lives.

By weaving from these materials to create things like welcome mats and purses, which are sold globally, profits go towards providing services within their camp.

Alison said: “Collaborating with Love Welcomes has meant thousands of damaged blankets have not been sent to landfill.

“Dirty Girls had saved them hoping they could be up upcycled for a different functional use, and Love Welcomes came along to do that in an extremely effective way.”

To view the Love Welcomes collection, click here.

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