Colourful plastic bags are gleefully handed out across the island of Bali, used once and then abandoned. They flit across the emerald rice fields, float from wave to wave in the churning sapphire sea, and smoulder in smoky backyard fires. Of the 700 cubic metres of plastic garbage (that’s like a 14-storey building) generated every single day in Bali, only about 5 per cent of plastic bags are recycled.
“We all love Bali as the island of temples, smiles and rice fields, but now it's more famous as the island of garbage,” say Balinese sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen. Three years ago the girls, then aged 12 and 10, decided that enough was enough, and set out on a mission to rid Bali of single-use plastic bags. They might have been young, but as students of Bali’s renowned Green School, they knew a lot about the problems with plastic, and had the enthusiasm and courage of youth to fight for what they believed in. “Seven years ago Bali wasn’t ready, but we have been boiling up awareness. Now it is ready,” they tell SBS. “We are already seeing increasing awareness in the villages, people are starting to realise that rubbish isn’t going away, they have to take responsibility.”
People are starting to realise that rubbish isn’t going away, they have to take responsibility.
Operating under the banner Bye Bye Plastic Bags the girls launched a petition on Facebook one evening to ban single-use plastic bags from Bali. To their astonishment 6,000 people signed up overnight; to date their team of teenage volunteers have collected more than 80,000 signatures (on and off line.) They also stage beach clean-ups, eco festivals and educational workshops, speak at international conferences and have established a plastic-free pilot village. Again and again they have discovered the incredible power of social media to reach a global audience.
Despite this support from the community, for the past two years the sisters have (tried but) failed to get the attention of Bali’s Governor Pastika, so they decided to imitate their hero, Mahatma Gandhi, and go on a hunger strike. However, their parents vetoed the hunger strike idea, forcing the sisters to opt for a food fast, instead, from sunrise to sunset. An announcement was made on Facebook and within two days the sisters were sitting in the Governor’s office. He was impressed by the “child-led social initiative,” and offered his full support. The girls now work with the Bali Provincial Environmental Agency, who made an official statement in 2015 that Bali will be plastic bag free by 2018.
Listen to Melati and Isabel Wijsen's Ted Talk:
“We have had kids reaching out from all over the world,” say the sisters. “Our campaign is encouraging people to become leaders; kids are beginning to realise they are the change makers.” Branches of Bye Bye Plastic Bags were recently launched in Myanmar, New York City and Australia – by 16-year-old Billy Barge. “The girls inspired me to get up and make a change,” he says. “We can’t sit and watch our inheritance crumble away in front of us.” He encourages anyone who wants to get involved to contact him at Bye Bye Plastic Bags Australia.
Seventeen-year-old environmental activist Suman Khadka also collaborated with the girls to set up Bye Bye Plastic Bags Nepal and in so doing forged a connection that would bring much-needed aid to his mountain village following last year’s cataclysmic earthquake. With most of the village destroyed, and many dead or dying, Khadka posted an urgent appeal for help on Facebook. Melati responded immediately. “I hardly knew her. We had only connected through Facebook,” says Suman, “but she was ready to help. That moment was so incredible. It cannot be expressed in words, it can only be felt. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.”
Kids are beginning to realise they are the changemakers.
Swinging into action, the sisters Melati and Isabel, raised $40,000 in just over a week. They wanted to personally deliver the money to Nepal, but their parents worried for their safety, so their dad and some other parents of the Bye Bye Plastic Bags team volunteered to go. The group from Bali went on to visit Nepal three times, treating people in a makeshift first-aid clinic and distributing over 20 tons of rice, hundreds of food packages, tarps, water filters and lanterns.
So, what does 2016 hold for these teenage Balinese eco warriors? “Our goals are education – because that’s where the change will happen; going global; and making sure that our voice, the voice of the youth is heard on a political level,” say Melati and Isabel. “Us kids may only be 25 per cent of the world’s population but we are 100 per cent the future.”