Meet the Sisters Behind the Single-Use Plastic Ban in Bali

They witnessed the pollution firsthand. So they decided to act.
September 22, 2021, 10:41am

Bali’s beaches, temples and rice paddies are world-famous, but so is it’s plastic problem. Every year, thousands of tons of plastic waste clog up the Indonesian island’s surrounding waters and wash onto the sandy beaches.  

Indonesian sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen grew up on the island, witnessed the spread of pollution firsthand, and decided to finally take matters into their own hands. All this when they were only 12 and 10 years old, respectively. 

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“It wasn’t rocket science, when we started seeing the growing plastic pollution problem around us everywhere: in the rice fields, in the ocean, and on the beaches, that we said, okay, what are we going to do about it?” Melati, now 20, told VICE World News. 

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Bali’s Biggest Clean Up 2020, Petitenget Beach, Seminyak, Bali, Indonesia on February 15, 2020. Photo: Jenya Kadnikova

Starting on social media, the pair chronicled their journey removing plastic from streets, rivers and beachfronts. They founded the grassroots movement Bye Bye Plastic Bags and established a following on Twitter and Instagram where they now invite other young people to dialogues and clean ups. 

“At the time, we learned 40 other countries had said no to single use plastic bags. And that was our first aha moment where we were like, ‘Okay, if they can do it, come on Bali. Come on Indonesia. We can also do it,’” Melati said. 

The archipelago nation is the second largest source of marine pollution after China. In Bali alone, about 300,000 tonnes of the 1.6 million tonnes of waste generated annually is plastic, with poor waste management and monsoon weather compounding the problem, threatening the island’s status as Indonesia’s tourism gem.

But plastics are not only the Earth’s most persistent pollutants, or threatening oceans and the creatures that live in them, plastics also contribute to global warming because of the greenhouse gas emissions they create.

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According to a report released early this year by the Center for International Environmental Law, “in 2019, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.” At this pace, “greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle threaten the ability of the global community to meet carbon emissions targets.”

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School March for Climate 2019. Photo courtesy of Bye Bye Plastic Bags

Nationally, the country has set an ambitious goal of reducing plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025, though the reliance on plastic during the COVID-19 pandemic is guaranteed to get in the way.

Inspired by the tactics of Mahatma Gandhi, young Melati and Isabel threatened a hunger strike in 2017 that instantly captured the attention of Bali's governor, who agreed to discuss the problem with the sisters. He then signed an order banning plastic bags, straws and styrofoam on the island, which went into effect in 2019 after sustained pressure.

“It has been an incredible journey on the front lines working together with many like-minded organizations and individuals,” Melati said.

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Plastic on the beaches of Bali. Photo: VICE World News

The successful campaign catapulted Melati and Isabel onto the world stage. They brought their anti-plastic message to the United Nations, the World Economic Forum and the International Monetary Fund. They were invited to give TED talks and Forbes, CNN and Time Magazine have listed them among the world’s most influential teens.

Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) campaigns also went beyond Bali, extending to 50 locations, including the United States and India. There are around 1,000 pending applications to start new BBPB campaigns from eager contributors around the world.

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“I’m still kind of blown away by the fact that we have gone global in the first place. What we started here in Bali was done without a business plan, without a strategy and just a clear vision of a plastic bag-free home,” Melati said.

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Bags, styrofoam and other single use plastics in Bali. Photo: VICE World News

But the pandemic threw up major obstacles to their work, as the world heavily relied on single-use plastics in the name of hygiene and protection from the coronavirus. Indonesia has been especially devastated by COVID-19, with more than 140,000 deaths and 4.2 million people infected with the virus.

Enforcement of the ban has also been lax, with many ignoring it.

“The plastic bags have come back in full swing,” Melati said, expressing frustration at the resurgence. “The implementation of the law (plastic ban) is not in effect. This is where we see again, that writing the law is not the same as implementing the law,” she said.

Melati acknowledges that people might feel plastic is the safest bet in pandemic times. But for her, it is also a challenge to continue driving policy and behavioral change, which is hard to do from home as people isolate to slow the spread of the virus.

“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,” she added. 

While the Wijsen sisters’ activism started with plastic, they are now focusing on empowering more young people to become changemakers, launching a sort of online training academy called Youthopia last year.

At the Bali-based venture, young people learn the art of online campaigns and how to conduct dialogue with leaders to see the change they want to happen. 

“We're leading by example,” Melati said. “And I think the rising young people, the momentum of young people is unstoppable and just beginning.”

Follow Anthony Esguerra on Twitter.