In 2013, siblings Melati Wijsen, now 20, and Isabel Wijsen, now 18, founded the youth-powered non-profit organization Bye Bye Plastic Bags to tackle the plastic waste crisis on their home island of Bali, Indonesia. In 2019, with the aid of their efforts, the government of Bali enacted a ban on single-use plastics. Through this initiative and with the momentum of their victory, Bye Bye Plastic Bags has now spoken to over 100,000 youth around the world, donated 8,000 educational booklets, appeared at 450 events, and is spearheading global impact through 50 teams in 29 countries.
Growing up on the “Island of the Gods”, Melati and Isabel were surrounded by nature’s beauty. Lush green mountains, volcanic hillsides, rice fields, and the deep blue ocean were the backdrop of their childhood. But the sisters knew that Bali had another side that wasn’t being shown on vacation brochures or in the media: the plastic pollution that haunted the shores of the beautiful island they called home.
The world’s growing plastic pollution crisis is amplified in Bali due to its monsoon weather, poor waste management, and increasing levels of marine contamination. The island’s beaches are flooded with 60 tonnes of plastic garbage every single day. In 2018, British diver Rich Horner captured the plastic-filled waters of a nearby island, helping bring international attention to Bali’s plight.
Rich Horner surrounded by plastic waste.
At only 12 and 10 years old, and fully aware of the crisis on their door step, Melati and Isabel realized they had to take immediate action. They knew their mission had to be specific and realistic to bring about real change, so they set their minds on one goal: to make the people of Bali say no to plastic bags. Melati says that although they “really had no plan, no business plan,” they felt strongly that they “needed to build a movement.” Equipped with bright pink T-shirts and determination, they initiated beach cleanup campaigns all over the island.
via: Bye Bye Plastic Bags
With the support of their entrepreneurial parents, the Wijsen sisters were always encouraged to be self-starters and explore their passions. What originally started as a two-girl initiative quickly blossomed into something much greater.
From music festivals to government meetings, Bye Bye Plastic Bags made an appearance at all types of events. With every beach they cleaned and every school they spoke at, their army of volunteers grew larger. Soon they built a local team of 30 determined young individuals and in 2013, with support from the girls’ friends and family, the Bye Bye Plastic Bags project was born.
“We started an online petition in the early days, which in the first 24 hours got over 6,000 signatures,” Melati recalls. Eventually, schools and businesses all over the island started to recognize the Wijsen sisters and they were invited to host and speak at workshops about the importance of making Bali plastic bag–free. By the end of the first year the group grew to 150 volunteers and were on their way to becoming a global movement.
via: Bye Bye Plastic Bags
The young environmental activists knew that raising mass awareness around plastic pollution was only one piece of the puzzle. To enact change and truly make Bali plastic bag–free, they would need to knock on the government’s door and navigate the legal world required for policy change. Understanding the rules and regulations around a ban on plastic bags was a maze of challenges, however, they were able to find lawyers willing to join the fight and provide some guidance.
After seven years of petitioning, hosting workshops, and leading beach clean-up projects, the calls of Bye Bye Plastic Bags and other like-minded NGOs were answered. In 2019, Bali Governor Wayan Koster announced an official ban on single-use plastics, with the goal to reduce Bali’s marine plastic waste by 70% within a year. Melati says of the victory, “It was definitely the persistence and the commitment. Just showing up and not giving up.”
via: Bye Bye Plastic Bags
Bye Bye Plastic Bags continues to scale. The organization has over 1,000 applications from young change-makers around the world who are eager to launch local teams. Through the years, Melati and Isabel have spoken to over 100,000 students worldwide. “At the end of every presentation, we always got asked the same question no matter where we were. And that question was always, ‘How can I do what you do?’” Melati says.
On the road to creating change, the Wijsen sisters learned many skills not taught within the framework of the traditional educational system. With the success of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, Melati and Isabel wanted to inspire and educate other young change-makers, so in 2020, they launched their new initiative, YOUTHTOPIA.
Supporting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations, YOUTHTOPIA is a peer-to-peer learning platform that equips young change-makers with the skills to succeed. From public speaking to research, YOUTHTOPIA offers master classes and is the first speaking agency for young people under 25.
Melati (L) and Isabel at United Nations for World Oceans Day, 2017. Via: Bye Bye Plastic Bags.
The goal is to be the headquarters for young change-makers around the world. “We believe that young people have the power and potential to accelerate change. We know that the intention and willingness are there from people in positions of power, but the implementation is not happening fast enough. And that’s where young people have that ability to accelerate change, to build the bridges that we need to be able to help scale the change that we need,” Melati says.
Bye Bye Plastic Bag teams across the globe. Via: Bye Bye Plastic Bags.
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