Isabel Wijsen, 14, and Melati Wijsen, 16, are still in their teens but they have already founded a movement against plastic bags that is having a major impact in Bali, and now spreading around the world. Their initiative, called Bye Bye Plastic Bags, is attempting to stop the single use of plastic bags.
The sisters were motivated after seeing growing amounts of garbage in Bali, much of it plastic bags used once or twice and then thrown away. The downside of Bali’s tourism is the creation of huge piles of garbage—which can wind up as litter on its beaches, fields and streets. Bali, they note, generates 680 cubic meters of plastic waste a day.
The girls saw it firsthand in their favorite local beach, Seseh, which was, as Melati puts it, “swallowed up by garbage.” “When you’re at the beach sunbathing or going for a swim, you’re swimming with plastic, you’re sunbathing with plastic. There’s no escaping it,” says Melati.
Those experiences led them, in April 2013, to start Bye Bye Plastic Bags, when they were just 10 and 12. The two girls attend the Bali Green School, which promotes environmentalism, so their campaign was in keeping with the school’s mission. “The question became ‘who’s going to do something about it?’ We thought ‘why don’t we do something about it? Why don’t we stand up for our island?’,’” Melati says.
They decided to focus on plastic bags. The initial strategy was to collect one million signatures in a petition to deliver to the Bali governor, and they wanted him to help pass a law that would ban the use, sale and production of plastic bags on Bali. After trying for a while, the girls changed tactics, saying later that they realized one million was “1,000 times 1,000” (their petition is now up to 72,000 signatures).
Instead, in November 2014, they asked for a meeting with the governor, and after spending a year getting a runaround from officials, decided to go on a hunger strike until the governor agreed to meet them—although it really a “semi-strike” because they only fasted from sunrise to sunset. Nonetheless, it took only two days of the strike for Governor I Made Mangku Pastika to change his mind and finally agree to meet them.
At the meeting, the governor signed an MOU that pledged “the governor and Bye Bye Plastic Bags and other related organizations hereby agree to work to ask the community of Bali not to use plastic bags by January 1, 2016 and support to minimize the impact of plastic.” The governor also agreed to support the use of alternatives to plastic bags.
It was all nonbinding and feel-good, but at least it was a step in the right direction (Bali was still full of plastic bags after January 1, 2016). So, eight months later, the girls managed to secure a second meeting, and got the governor to sign a circular letter (surat edaran) to promote the use of recyclable bags by 2018. Perhaps the biggest step was having the governor acknowledge that plastic waste was a growing problem—before he had said the plastic buildup was a “natural phenomenon.”