Journey of two sisters: Saying Bye-Bye to Plastic Bags

Under the tropical Bali sun, two young sisters played carefree along the island's pristine beaches and lush rice paddies. However, as Melati and Isabel grew older, they began to notice plastic waste littering these once-idyllic landscapes. After learning that Bali produced 680 cubic meters of plastic waste daily, equivalent to a 14-story building and that almost no plastic bags were recycled, the sisters decided to take action. Distressed at seeing their island paradise being choked by plastic, an idea was born when the girls were just 12 and 10 years old—they would launch a crusade to say "bye-bye" to plastic bags in Bali!

Melati and isabel wijsen, founders of bye bye plastic bags(Coralvue)

Thus began an extraordinary journey that would eventually capture global attention and inspire youth worldwide. In 2013, they launched a grassroots campaign called Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) to eliminate single-use plastic bags in Bali. Armed with little more than passion and purpose, Melati and Isabel rallied together with other local kids and initiated beach cleanups, school workshops and petition drives aimed at raising awareness and reducing plastic bag usage. They also distributed reusable alternative bags made by locals. Seeing these young crusaders in action motivated communities to support the cause.

But the path was not easy. Despite gathering 100,000 petition signatures at the Bali International Airport, government officials dismissed the youngsters' pleas at first, but the sisters refused to give up. Channelling the tactics of iconic changemakers like Gandhi, they even threatened a hunger strike, finally prompting the Governor to meet with them. Their steadfast activism paid off when he signed an agreement to ban plastic bags, straws, and Styrofoam in Bali by 2018.

When the deadline arrived, the ban had yet to fully materialize, demonstrating the challenges of transforming policy into action. But the sisters and the Bye Bye Plastic Bags movement kept the pressure on. After years of unwavering dedication, the regulation finally took effect in 2019, marking a monumental achievement for Bali's environment and its determined youth advocates.

Beyond inspiring change in their homeland, Melati and Isabel also expanded their message globally. They brought their call to action to world stages like the UN, TED, and the World Economic Forum, putting a compelling youth voice to the plastic pollution crisis. Their initiative took root in over 60 locations worldwide as their story motivated young people to launch their own anti-plastic campaigns.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic's challenges, which saw a resurgence in single-use plastics, the sisters remained undeterred. They continue to advocate for effective policy implementation and behavioural change, emphasizing that environmental health is crucial in preventing future pandemics.

Now 24 and 22, the Wijsen sisters continue to fight plastic waste while also tackling new environmental challenges, including climate change. They know the same urgency applied to the pandemic must be brought to the climate emergency. "If we do not take care of, if we do not prioritize the environment, it just means that there will be more pandemics coming in the future," Melati asserts.

The sisters also co-founded Mountain Mamas, helping Balinese women earn income by making reusable bags. Combining social impact and environmental good, this upcycling enterprise empowers marginalised communities while reducing plastic waste. Their "One Island, One Voice" initiative also brings hundreds of organizations together yearly for Bali's largest beach cleanups.

The sisters believe such holistic, community-based approaches are key to creating lasting systems change. “When you support women, you are empowering children, communities, villages and driving forward the economy,” Melati said.

Through boundless grit and vision, these two girls ignited a spark that grew into a raging global youth movement to combat plastic pollution. Their tale serves as a shining model of how young people can drive monumental change. Years later, whether wading through Bali's waves or speaking at the UN, Melati and Isabel continue illuminating a path towards a more sustainable future for our Plastic Island planet.

Written By:

Saroj Sharma

Saroj has an experience of over 9 years working in the development sector as a social worker, educator and an independent researcher. She has worked extensively with the marginalized community in India and Nepal. She is an avid reader and takes a profound interest in writing, preferably human stories.

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