Wijsen sisters in Bali focused on eradicating the use of plastic bags on the island at barely 10 and 12 years old. They proved that, when it comes to making a difference, age really doesn’t matter. These changemakers chat with Su Aziz. This article first appeared in In Focus issue 4 magazine.
Lively, that’s the word that would describe Melati and Isabel Wijsen, well. Although, Melati describes herself as, ‘determined, ambitious and visionary young changemaker! A leader with initiative and who empowers those around me.’ While Isabel sees herself as, ‘a focused and passionate student who has a great sense of humour, loves to dance and expresses herself creatively. A genuine listener and always a good friend.’
Without a doubt, youthful optimism and enthusiasm exude generously out of these two. Exactly the ingredients to drive a cause. Now, 18 and 16 years of age respectively, these two sisters who grew up in Bali have been advocating for the island to be plastic-free through their initiative, Bye Bye Plastic Bags.
What got them started six years ago was a lesson in class – both are students of Green School in Bali – about impactful world leaders and changemakers, such as Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King that got them thinking about making a difference in Bali. Brainstorming led to a decision to focus on Bali’s garbage issue because it impacted their daily life the most.
Bali has a population of nearly 670, 000 and it’s a well-known tropical island destination. Its beautiful beaches, colourful as well as exotic culture attract over five million tourists annually, and the number is growing. Tourism is its biggest revenue that contributes around 48 per cent to the island’s GDP.
It’s not hard to imagine how Bali’s lucrative tourism industry may contribute to its garbage problem. ‘We’d play in the rice fields or walk on the beach and we saw plastic bags clogging the gutters and piling up in the rivers, by the side of the road as well as in the rivers,’ says Isabel. ‘Plastic bags were something we saw given away every day and they aren’t necessary. We saw this as a realistic problem we could tackle,’ adds Melati. In fact, Bali aims to reduce its plastic usage by 70 per cent by 2025.
In 2013, when Melati was 12 years old and Isabel was 10 years old, they launched the idea of Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) at the Global Initiative Network Youth Conference in Bali. To date, there are 35 global BBPB teams in 29 countries led by young people. Both Melati and Isabel have spoken to tens of thousands of students globally with the hope that each time they do so, they leave behind a huge motivation for youth to take action.
Here, they tell us more.
Q: Why is Bye Bye Plastic Bags an important effort?
A: Bye Bye Plastic Bags is a group of young people – just like you and your friends – to help save the environment. We don’t like using plastic bags because it ends up in nature, forever. Animals can’t tell the difference between plastic and food, so they eat it. Can you imagine? You wouldn’t want to eat plastic. So, let’s work together and say no to plastic.
Q: What’s been the most effective way of getting your message across?
A: What we’re still enjoying the most when it comes to campaigning is speaking to the youth. Whenever we travel for conferences or speaking assignments, we try to talk to at least one local school as we recently did in Berlin and Bandung. Their age groups vary from 5-year-olds to university students. We’ve spoken to around 45,000 students over the past years which is probably one of the things that make us the proudest. For us, speaking to them and sharing our story is the most effective way to get the message across. It’s relatable because we’re students too. Also, using the tool of social media to spread the message far and wide. We feel that this is an incredible way to reach thousands of people on and off our island home.
Q: You had aimed for Bali to be free of plastic bags by 2018. It’s now 2019, what is the update?
A: Finally, after many years of hard work and with the effort of many, the ban of plastic bags in modern stores is in place since 1 January 2019 in Bali’s capital city, Denpasar. We’re doing regular check-ups with our local team and are proud to say that it’s been taken very seriously. You won’t find a plastic bag at the stores and people are slowly changing their habits to bringing their own bags when shopping. We’re so proud. The rest of Bali will follow in June 2019, and under the new governor’s regulation #97 of 2018, the ban will be extended to straws as well as styrofoam.
Q: Your thoughts on youth empowerment?
A: Youth empowerment has become one of our key messages. Over the years we’ve embodied the proof that kids can do things. We’re living examples of that. Everything’s happening in our lifetime, our generation is experiencing things to an extreme level never felt before. But unlike previous generations we don’t have the luxury to wait before taking action. We believe the current traditional education system needs to change because at the rate we’re going now, we’re not empowering young people to act. We’re studying for standardised testing, focusing on grades, finishing school in such a linear way and yet we’re forgetting the biggest test of our time – climate change. So, the question becomes, how can we empower youth through education? Our next project dives straight into that.
Q: How can we tackle issues concerning the environment?
A: Sometimes, when you look at issues that we’re facing, like climate change or plastic pollution, it can feel huge and you start to doubt your own action. But it does matter. For an individual to start and to make it easier, break things down. Do research to best understand local practices being done in your area that contribute to saving the environment. Just start today, start leading by example. Make that difference one bag at a time, one plastic bottle and straw.
Q: What are the three things you’d change about the environment?
A: One, we’d see more serious climate action being done to ensure that we stay below 1.5 degrees; two, we’d stop plastic consumption and replace it with more circular, sustainable products for the environment, and; stop the mass deforestation that’s happening throughout the world and especially Indonesia.
Q: What’s an unforgettable lesson for you?
A: You can’t do it alone. You need a team behind you. It’s what keeps us going on challenging days and they make it fun. Whether it’s been our friend, family or other local changemakers. It took a team of volunteers of all ages from all over the world to make BBPB a reality.
Q: What question would you that can change the world, and who do you think should answer it?
A: The question would be, ‘What if we could start from the beginning, how would we as young changemakers create the world that we want to be a part of?’ and the youth collectively should answer it.
Q: Lastly, where can we expect to hear you speak next?
A: What we’re definitely excited about our first Changemaker Weekend hosted by Melati here in Bali. We can’t wait to share our ideas, beliefs and vision with young, likeminded youth, hoping to help empower them to follow their passion. Other upcoming speaking assignments for 2019 include Australia, Colorado, Germany and Canada. Alas, Isabel’s very much focussing on school this year and can’t miss out on her classes so much. So, she isn’t traveling abroad that much for speaking assignments.
Melati and Isabel Wijsen’s formula for great teamwork and results
Make it fun! Creating a movement doesn’t have to be boring. Keeping it fun and alive will attract lots of team members. If you speak from the heart, people will see your passion for the work that you do, the fun that you’re having and they will want to join in. Letting team members take leadership on certain projects they feel passionate about will also give great results.