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The teen activist who got plastic banned on Bali

Words: Anne-Marie Hoeve

Photos: Muhammad Fadli

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Melati Wijsen was only 12 when she began her fight against the plastic waste piling up all over Bali. After years of tireless campaigning she finally achieved her goal: getting single-use plastic banned on the beloved island she calls home. 5 talks to her about making change happen.

What made you decide to tackle plastic pollution?

It was just one day too many when we saw plastic in our everyday lives. Going to the beach, walking to the rice fields – it was everywhere. All of those moments came together and my sister and I looked at each other at one point and said: “What are we going to do about it?” I was 12 and my sister Isabel was 10. Seeing the reality of this growing problem around us, with plastic ending up in places it shouldn’t, we felt this urgency to protect what we love: the environment and the natural world.

“Change is happening too slowly. Why does it take six years to ban a single-use plastic bag?”

Melati Wijsen

Single-use plastic was banned on Bali in 2019 – how did you achieve that?

It was a really long journey. We initially thought that it would take us a summer – we had no idea it would take the next few years of our lives. Within 24 hours of our first petition going live in 2013, we had 6,000 signatures from people all around the world agreeing that Bali should be plastic–bag free. But policy change, we learned, doesn’t happen overnight. It takes persistence and a long-term commitment. And it needs support from all levels. Community support, but also government relations, which was never my favourite as a 14-year-old teenager missing school for yet another meeting.

Pointing fingers is one way to do it, but sitting at the same table and having a two-way conversation is another way. We preferred to build that relationship to understand the barriers and challenges to actually create change. Because then you know how to take action and move forward.

“Young people see themselves in our story and feel enabled that if we can do it, they can too”

In the picture: Melati together with her sister and fellow activist Isabel

What role can young changemakers play?

We know that change is simply happening too slowly. Why does it take six years to ban a single-use plastic bag? We can’t wait until we’re older, or in positions of power ourselves, so we do have to work with those in power now and listen to their stories and convince them of the urgency we feel as the youngest generation. We know the importance of collaborating with the government, but at the same time, we cannot underestimate the power of community-led change – people power.

Bali’s famous beaches are regularly awash with plastic, and much of it is single-use. Photo: Aliaksandra Ivanova / EyeEm / Getty

That’s why it makes me so proud to see how Bye Bye Plastic Bags [Wijsen’s NGO] has turned into this movement – a living example that kids can accomplish things. Young people see themselves in our story and feel enabled that if we can do it, they can too. Today we have about 57 teams in 30 countries, led by young people trying to say no to plastic bags. 

How important are role models?

There’s a semester in middle school when you learn about people who really made a difference – like Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. I remember feeling so struck by the possibility of one person building an entire movement: global, local, no matter how big or how small. It made me realise that you just start by starting. I think that’s also what really motivated me. But the people we were learning about were much older, and my sister and I have this incredible impatience: we can’t wait until we’re older. It has to be now.

“You have power as an individual. It can feel tiny, but your actions matter”

Have you noticed a difference since the ban?

For the first six months of the ban we saw an incredible change. Shops everywhere had signs saying that they no longer handed out plastic bags. There was also a lot of pride among the Balinese people that they had made a mark and stood for the environment with this small first step of banning plastic bags. 

But the arrival of the pandemic feels like a major setback. Single-use plastic has come into the narrative as being more hygienic, even though the coronavirus has been found to survive on plastic just as long as on some reusable surfaces such as glass or steel. But, as we’ve learned, mindset is one of the most powerful things. So now we’ve seen plastic pollution come back. The implementation of the ban is not taking priority and people are struggling with it because alternatives are much more costly, so plastic remains the more convenient option.  

What would you say to someone who wants to take action against plastic?

First and foremost, you have power as an individual. It can feel tiny, and it can feel like it’s not enough, but your actions matter, so as an individual, you can stop your own consumption. 

The Wijsen sisters are not afraid to make their voices heard when it comes to taking a stand against plastic trash.

We have to hold our governors and corporate leaders accountable. Ask your supermarket chains and the CEO of a brand that you really like – what’s the source of their packaging? Where is it ending up? What is the lifecycle of this product? You have a right to know. 

My sister and I wrote tons and tons of letters to companies and government departments – we picked up the phone, asking for whoever is in charge of packaging, we noted which brands were behind the plastic trash found during clean-ups, we signed petitions pressuring governments and brands to change their packaging. I think those are really important ways that you can contribute as an individual. It’s about showing politicians, policymakers and corporations, especially big industry players, that we demand change. That’s where the long-term sustainable change will happen.

“Growing up in Bali, I was surrounded by nature, and because of that I have a deep, immense love for the environment”

How can we change our mindset to better protect the environment?

It has to come from a place of true understanding. You hear about climate change everywhere, but what is climate change? What does it really mean when plastic is ending up in our oceans? People don’t connect the dots to themselves. We also don’t feel connected to the natural world and what we are doing to the natural world.

Growing up in Bali, I was surrounded by nature, and because of that I have a deep, immense love for the environment and protecting it. I understand that not everyone has had that upbringing, but I do think that even if you grow up without ever having seen the ocean, you can still learn that it’s providing the oxygen we breathe. 

But nobody is teaching that at schools. We need to see a radical change in our education system. That starts with allowing the rising generation to understand how connected we are. It’s also important to teach people about the solutions as well as the problems. 

Which actions can have the biggest impact when it comes to the plastic problem?

I don’t think there’s one single solution that will help fix the plastic crisis. But I think it’s a start to eliminate single use products. You only use it for about 30 minutes, and then it ends up in the environment. So I think that the most immediate impact we could have is to start implementing and investing in alternatives that are much more circular and environmentally friendly, from using refillable systems to urging companies to radically redesign their packaging. 

What gives you hope?

All of the young people I see taking action. And Youthtopia. We launched it in 2020 and now we have about 74 Circle of Youth members – young individuals with their own project, and track record of change. It’s an empowering online ecosystem, where we work together with frontline changemakers globally, and build peer-to-peer programmes for all the young people who want to make a difference, but don’t know how.