At the 16th Alpensymposium 2018 held last week in Interlaken, Switzerland, Successful Green founder Andrea Schaller had the opportunity to speak with two young plastic waste activists from Bali, Indonesia.
Sixteen-year-old Melati Wijsen and her fourteen-year-old sister Isabel are campaigning to ban plastic bags locally and reduce the impact of plastic waste globally. They started when they were only 12 and 10 years old, and their mission is already being heard on a global scale. They have previously spoken at a TED talk in London, as well as in New York at the United Nations for World Oceans Day 2017.
Bali, Island of Gods – or Island of Trash?
“There is no escaping the plastic waste, especially during the rainy season when the trash gets washed down the rivers to the coastline. Wind and ocean currents also direct plastic towards the beaches,” Melati explains.
“Who´s going to do something about it?” they asked themselves.
Tourism is the biggest industry in Bali, and many hotels take care to clean the beaches in front of their area. But that´s not a long-term solution, the sisters soon realised. “The government isn´t really taking action, it´s the private sector organising clean-ups, and unfortunately that´s not very consistent.”
That´s why they founded an organisation called Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an NGO with the mission to get the population (and tourists) of Bali to say no to plastic bags. Indonesia really only started using plastic bags about 20 years ago, they explain.
“Saying no to plastic bags – that´s just the warming up,” says Melati. “It´s an easy first step solution that can be implemented on a government level. But the long term goal is waste management, with separation of plastics, and that´s one of the things we are lobbying for.”
The challenge of sorting
What do they do with all the plastic cleaned up from the beaches?
“The only recycling stations are private sector, so we are lucky enough to have teamed up with them so they can recycle materials,” they explain. The plastic is sent over to Java, a larger neighbouring island, for proper recycling.
One big challenge however is that a lot of the plastic is hard to identify and sort, so much of it ends up in local landfills. When these spill over, some of the plastic waste eventually ends up in the ocean and on beaches again.
Raising local awareness
Isabel points out that approximately two thirds of fish at the markets have plastic in their stomachs, and this is one way they can show local communities the impact of plastic waste. Fishing plays a large role in traditional Balinese lifestyle and livelihood, so when the fishermen make the connection that plastic is affecting their economy, there is much more willingness to change.
“Now the government needs to provide a foundation so that people can change more easily.”
The teenagers point out that “Bali is in the unique position in the sense that it has an autonomy; we get to use it to our advantage and urge the government to take that autonomy and be the leading island example for the rest of Indonesia to follow.”
Indonesia is the second largest plastic polluter in the world after China, its waste making up 10 per cent of plastic pollution in the oceans. So if changes are effectively made there, the impact is significant.
The sisters also have a social enterprise producing alternative bags to plastic together with Balinese women. These are made from recycled materials, such as newspaper, donated sheets from hotels, and old clothing. At the moment, production is not so large that it could replace plastic bags in supermarkets, but they are working with other organisations on Bali producing alternative bags and packaging, as well as enabling those bags to reach retailers.
Another project the sisters have created is an online platform called Welcome Alternative Bags, where the goal is to connect producers and seekers of alternative bags.
Empowering young changemakers
Throughout their travels these past few years, Isabel and Melati have met many young, passionate, and dedicated activists “who have some of the most realistic solutions to some of the most complex issues we are facing right now.” That ignited a passion to try to empower the younger generation.
Inspired, they decided to create a place where young changemakers can come together and connect. The focus is on environment and biodiversity, humanity, and spirituality; the common thread lies in innovation, technology, and sustainability. It provides the opportunity for youngsters to come together to create without the drive for economic profit or ego holding them back, but just because they want to make a change.
As the Wijsen sisters broaden their horizons, Successful Green has offered to publish their articles, so make sure to check back regularly and follow up on all the projects these ambitious girls are tackling.
“This movement has become a lot bigger than just saying no to plastic bags, it´s tapping into this massive picture.”
Photo credit: Andrea Schaller