Restoring Paradise

The island of Bali has been besieged by a plastic “garbage emergency.” But a successful environmental movement has been led by two teenagers. Now they’re ready to save the rest of the world.

September 16, 2019

1:27 pm

If you ever thought, “Yes there are a lot of problems in the world, but what could I possibly do about it?,” have we got a story for you.

The island of Bali — the tropical-paradise province of Indonesia that is renowned for its idyllic setting and meditative, spiritual qualities — has in recent years been utterly besieged by garbage, particularly plastics. The island was generating enough plastic refuse on a daily basis to fill a 14-story building. Indonesia, in fact, was ranked second, behind only China, on a list of countries that mismanage plastic waste.

And then two sisters, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, took action. Six years ago, when they were just 12 and 10, respectively, they started an organization, Bye Bye Plastic Bags, and launched a campaign to ban plastic bags from the island. That quickly led to a meeting with the Balinese governor (prompted, in part, by the girls’ brief hunger strike), and now, this past July, Bali banned single-use plastic.

The girls’ father is Indonesian, from Java, and their mother is from the Netherlands. The couple settled in Bali 25 years ago. We talked with the Wijsen sisters to learn more about how they got started, what tips they have to others who want to get involved in environmental activism, and how they are helping to battle a “garbage emergency.”

Earth’s Call: To outsiders, Bali conjures up images of a tropical paradise. But tell us about "trash season" in Bali.

Melati Wijsen: In Bali, we have only two seasons: dry or rain. But growing up we noticed there was one more: Trash Season. It’s appropriate to call it that. Trust us, we’ve seen trash season take over the island. With the rainy season, all the rain forces the littered trash to accumulate in even bigger piles on the beach.

Earth’s Call: It must be pretty bad if the government has to declare a "garbage emergency"?

Melati: I know! How crazy. It has gotten to a point where the government had no other choice but to address it as an emergency. But emergencies don’t just go away. 

Earth’s Call: How did you first get interested in activism?

Melati: We have always been the kids that would be the first to sign up to volunteer wherever we could. We would initiate a local bazaar, build tree houses, give English classes to local kids — so it was only natural for us to take care of what we love and remain active in our community.  

Earth’s Call: What were the steps involved in creating Bye Bye Plastic Bags?

Isabel Wijsen: We started building our team of young, like-minded people. TEAM was the number one lesson we learned, and always share with others. We wouldn’t be where we are today if it wasn’t for our team. This happened through all the events we attended or the schools we spoke at. Kids were so eager to jump onboard and get involved! 

Earth’s Call: Did you ever come up against any resistance from government officials who would have rather swept the problem under the rug? How persistent did you have to be to meet your goals?

Melati: Very persistent. But here's the weird part: most of the time they wouldn't want to swipe it under the rug. They would acknowledge the problem, they'd have the intention to do the right thing, but it would end there and take too long before we would see impact happen. So we would have to keep coming back, knocking on doors, getting signatures on our petition, giving talks, mobilizing the community so we could really urge and convince the government to act. At one point, my sister and I even went on a hunger strike!

Earth’s Call: Have you been encouraged by school or government officials in your efforts? And what has been the reaction among your family and friends and colleagues to your recognition?

Isabel: Absolutely! We still can’t believe how far this vision of ours has come! The support from the island is awesome! Whenever we do events or gatherings, it is always so nice to see how much our efforts have inspired the local youth. We are encouraged to keep on going by all of the other youths that have joined BBPB and started their own local teams — you can find BBPB in over 40 locations now!

Earth’s Call: Bali is an island nation, so clearly marine life is critical to its well-being. Tell us about the importance of a garbage-free ocean for Bali and Indonesia and the world, and about your biggest concerns when it comes to oceans: acidification, coral reefs, garbage gyres, micro-plastics, over-fishing and illegal fishing?

Melati: All of it! We are so sad to see the oceans not receive the level of respect they deserve. Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, with only ocean surrounding our 17,000 islands. We are seeing overfishing happen on a daily basis and garbage dumps into the ocean. Recently, we had a dinner where we had fish caught at our local beach. Later, once it was put on the table, we sat around it and opened it up — what we saw almost sent us flying off our chairs. Right there, in the middle of the open fish, there were bits of plastic. It was horrible. But also a huge wake-up call. 

Earth’s Call: What advice do you have for young people who want to get involved in something like this in their own communities?

Melati: Don’t wait until you are older to start making a difference. Use the tools you have around you and make something out of it! Find one thing you are passionate about and go for it. Start talking about it, show people how excited you are, and share that passion to drive forward change. 

Earth’s Call: You have a new initiative called Youthtopia that looks to empower youth around the world. Can you tell us more about the initiative?

Melati: Sure! We’re very excited about it. After campaigning for the last 6 years with BBPB and seeing the ban come into place earlier this year, we celebrated, but we also knew that it was not enough. There are still so many things to do.

Earth’s Call: What has been the biggest surprise to you since you embarked on this journey?

Melati: There have been so many awesome moments and surprises…hmmmm, it’s so hard! One of the biggest ones was when we got the invitation to speak at TED! As kids we always loved watching the cool and smart talks on TED and were super honored! It was so awesome to be onstage!

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