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Two young girls and a dream of social change

 | November 4, 2017

The Wijsen sisters have come far since they founded a movement against plastic bags on their island of Bali.

Isabel Wijsen (left) and Melati Wijsen, who have been working for four years towards a plastic-free Bali.

Isabel Wijsen (left) and Melati Wijsen, who have been working for four years towards a plastic-free Bali.

PETALING JAYA: Melati and Isabel Wijsen of Bali were only 12 and 10 years old when they began a youth-driven movement dedicated to getting rid of unsightly plastic bags from their island.

That was four years ago, and the two sisters say they have since gained much education through activities they carry out with Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB), the NGO that they established for their mission.

“Despite starting off without a business plan, no hidden agenda, and no strategic planning, we have learnt a lot,” said Melati at the recent Sustainability Summit 2017 here.

“We have learnt from creating pilot villages and social enterprises and speaking to over 16,000 students. It has been a ground-up movement of initiating social change within the community.

“At the same time, we recognise the importance of working with people at the top, and we are working with the Indonesian government towards a plastic bag-free Bali.

“We are still learning.”

Isabel admitted that they were naive and thought things would be easy when they began their movement.

“Four years later, we are still in the spider web of how things work,” she said. “There are different systems and layers.

“It’s an interesting learning curve. At a young age, we are being exposed to government bodies and systems.”

The sisters said their disinterest in fame or fortune had helped to ease the way for them.

“We are not doing it for the money or for the ego,” said Melati. “We are doing it for Bali. This gives us many opportunities and opens a lot of doors.

“On the other hand, people find it hard to take us seriously. They come up to us and say, ‘Oh, you guys are so cute, what an inspiration.’

“But what we’re doing is huge, and it is realistic. We want people to understand that we are not going anywhere until this thing happens.”

The Wijsen sisters have published a 25-page booklet on waste management and youth action.

BBPB provides education through meetings, public events, social media articles and the “One Island One Voice” campaign, which encourages and celebrates plastic-bag-free businesses.

In 2014, BBPB signed a memorandum of understanding with the governor of Bali to free the island of plastic bags by 2018.

The sisters have delivered a TED Talk in London and made a presentation at the United Nations.

“We talked about the lasting question that plastic bags are impractical and too expensive,” Melati said.

She noted that many countries had introduced either levies or taxes on plastic bags.

“I agree with the statement that plastic costs more to society and the economy than it provides. A recent study showed that the tourism industry loses a revenue of US$53 billion annually due to plastics.

“Some 60% to 90% of plastics land in the ocean. There is damage to fisheries and to public health. This is the language we have used to help us connect with the government.”


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