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[DE/ENG] Melati & Isabel von Bye Bye Plastic Bags: „Die Zeit für Veränderung war nie besser als jetzt.“

Bali, not only paradisal island dream and simultaneously symbol for our plastic polluted world, but also bearer of hope when it comes to innovative ideas regarding the fight against pollution and making a difference. There are two young women standing in the lead of this movement, campaigning against plastic a third of their lives. With the age of 10 and 12 they started their journey on fighting plastic and finding their ways into the government buildings of Indonesia. These two game changers travelled all around the world together to spread their idea and encourage change, especially among the youth. Their speeches are equally inspiring and awakening and if you experienced their passion once it’s hard to escape from their mission. This mission is as trivial as radical: Ban all plastic bags all over Bali. In the beginning they wanted to accomplish their goal by 2015 but the sisters now do have the promises of the government to implement their claim in 2018. 

I talked to the 17 years old Melati and the 15 years old Isabel during my time in Bali about their project Bye Bye Plastic Bags which is at the peak of the aim. And let me tell you I do not only learned a lot more than ever about the plastic issue but I also gathered a lot of courage for our Earth in which such inspiring and passionate women like Melati and Isabel live.

Before I went to Bali myself I was really struggling with the fact that I as a tourist support the pollution on the island. Would you say the tourism on Bali is a blessing or more of a struggle for the island – especially when it comes to plastic waste? 

Melati: I think there is really thin line. Bali became very dependent on the tourism industry and the tourism lifestyle. And there has been a beautiful integration of the Balinese culture and showing that to the rest of the world how unique this island is. There is a lot to show. But connecting it back to the waste in regards of tourism being responsible for that much waste. There is definitely a lot more being produced to be able to have that demand and supply chain. But I also think that the tourists that come to visit here they don’t lead by example enough and that’s where I always link the issue of tourism industry and plastic. For me one thing that tips me up all the time is when I’m walking through a street and I see a person that has an iPhone. Meaning they have access to information. They are on 3G because they are here for holiday, they can afford it. It means they have access to social media, all those articles that come out. They know about the plastic problem and still choose to be ignorant and take that plastic bag at the counter. They have a massive influence here to the people on the street watching. The local communities here. If people visiting the island don’t respect the island why should people living here do that? For me that is the biggest connection to tourism industry and plastic pollution and how it influences the plastic ending up on the beaches. It’s easy to say: Wow, I came to visit that island and it’s so covered in plastic and take photos and make it go viral from your holiday in Bali but you know, we all have our roles to play. And it starts with tourists respecting our island.

Isabel & Melati together with change maker Jane Goodall

I know you got the inspiration for BBPB in school. But where did the motivation come from to become such a strong eco-warrior in such young years? What drives you?

Isabel: I think it has a huge way to do with the fact how we were raised. Living in Bali, an island completely stranded by ocean. We live in a house 100 meters from the beach right in the middle of the rice fields. The environment and being aware what is happening around us was definitely something that was part of our day-to-day lives. I mean, it’s not rocket science to see that plastic is an issue. So when we were 10 and 12 years old, walking with our friends on the side of the road home from school you could see plastic. It was just so in your face that you start to ask the question, what someone is going to do about this?

Melati: Our motivation was the realization that everything is happening right now. We are literally the generation on the front lines. We are going to experience and having the most impact in changes in our lives. The question was simply: What can we do about it? And what are we going to do about it?

If you could meet a climate change denier like Donald Trump e.g. personally, what would you say to him?

Isabel: I think a lot of the issues are that when there are an activist and a climate change denier there are a lot of pointing fingers. Something that I really want to do is just sit and ask them questions like: Why you don’t believe in it? It’s better to understand their psychology then  my responses to them because in the end pointing fingers gets you nowhere. That’s a huge part of it, understanding the other part of the story and seeing how you can change their minds to become more conscious.

Melati: It’s understanding what makes them a climate change denier to become able to feed them with information that they would understand and connect with as a climate change denier to agreeing to a fact that climate change is real and it’s happening.

I am in Bali now for some days and I still see so many plastic bags getting provided at the supermarket and so on. Unfortunately no one at the airport asked me: Do you have any plastic bags to declare? (editor’s note: Please watch their first TED talk to see what we are talking about.) Is there an end of plastic bags insight?

Melati: 2017 was a big year for us in the sense of keeping that movement going, making sure that the government didn’t forget the promises they have made. As a people power movement, really from the ground up grassroots, we had the honor reaching those amazing milestones. We have celebrated the commitment „Save Nature“ at the United Nations and the TED talks.  We are now in the second month of 2018 and we still feel that a lot of action needs to happen. We have proven it’s legally possible. It’s economically more then efficient, practical and the public is ready for it. That’s what the event „One Island – One Voice“ is all about. Our upcoming milestones are definitely the big Clean Up at over a hundred locations. For me it’s my most favorite day. It beats Christmas and Eastern and everything cause it just shows the island of Bali is really united. It’s to show that they don’t want to be known as this trash island. There is still Bali – the island of paradise.

And political?

Melati: One of the most recent milestones is we’ve managed to get the attention of the local government, the regional government but now also the national government. We work closely with three ministries. The national planning of regulation that goes up to our 17.000 islands. The maritime affairs and the environment and forestry department. I recently went over to Jakarta. I was two days there very intensely, having hearings with the director generals, telling them about this Clean Up and how the National Government can help Bali government move forward and use the autonomy here on the island to really follow the commitments. So i think the last big milestone to prove that the public pressure is on is going to be Balis Biggest Clean Up. That is one thing that we are going to be the most proud of. It’s five years of Bye Bye Plastic Bags and we are still able to pull massive crowds together because we are serious about getting the island plastic bag free and these people are behind us as well. Now it’s time. And it’s the turn of the government to really follow because the people are waiting.

In 2014 and 2015 respectively you already got the promise by the government that they will educate people to say No to plastic. How do they want to implement that?

Isabel: At the moment I don’t know if they are changing the national curriculum. I know that there are definitely intentions of having a more green curriculum as a part of the school systems here in Indonesia but I haven’t really heard of much movement. But within Bye Bye Plastic Bags we do very much because we believe education is much. We’ve got our booklet that we distributed over a thousand times, talking about plastic waste in the indonesian language, targeting especially primary students. So definitely education is something that is very close to our hearts.

Melati: And I think, not so much on a school level but on an awareness level, Indonesia is trying to do this green competition for cities to have programs in their cities to become the greenest city. There is a lot of pride behind that program. So a lot of cities are trying to have more green programs and that automatically educates and brings awareness. But in our schools where the students are there is definitely a lack in the education system of more: What is climate change? What are the solutions that can be done? What about this plastic issue? That is very heavily missing.

Do you feel like it’s harder for you as girls talking to all these big political influencers?

Melati: When we started that wasn’t something we thought about. It was never a prevention for us. Being girls was just what it was. I started realizing it at the age of 13 already that politicians we were in to meetings with. I told myself, maybe it was because of our age. But now when I go with 17 into national government meetings they will not look me in the eye and I feel taking it back sometimes because I’m shocked that this is still something that occurs in daily interaction between men and women. It’s 2018. I make a very strong point about being strong. Just a strong handshake, make sure that I look them in the eye even if they don’t look at me. Because for me being a woman in politics or as an activist and change maker shouldn’t have anything to do with how you interact with one another. In our family we have three girls and one papa. It’s much female energy all the time.

Isabel: Sometimes you have that border of being a woman. But we didn’t experience it as bad as other women in other countries do. It has also to do with the fact that we are so young and we hold the Indonesian nationality.

Melati: For us it’s really inspiring how people view Bye Bye Plastic Bags because we are women. The amount of messages we get from young girls shows that leadership is being done by other girls has an incredible impact. And that has turned in an incredible fact in Bye Bye Plastic Bags itself.

Melati and Isabel Wijsen at TEDGlobal London – September 29, 2015, Faraday Lecture Hall, Royal Institution of Great Britain, London, England. Photo: James Duncan Davidson/TED

I basically watched all of your talks and you are so powerful in speaking. Where does your confidence come from? And how I can learn it?

Isabel: To be honest, I think it’s practice cause I remember one of the first presentations we gave we had a script word for word and we were so nervous backstage. Over the last five years it was a lot of practice but also the fact that we have so much support around us. From our team, from the audience, the young people we speak to as well. And it’s also the fact that we have so much passion and motivation for what we are doing. We know what we want to say. The passion definitely shows how honest and true our message is when we are on stage.

Melati: It’s also how you deliver a message like you are not in front of the message. You are standing behind the message. When you stand behind such a strong message it’s not anymore you or the movement it’s connecting to so many people on a totally different dimension. This is an issue we are all connected to. Plastic has a massive effect on all of us. It’s a way bigger picture than just this island project.

I live next to Ubud in a community where it seems like many tourists and newcomers are there. Many restaurants are run by foreigners and they already have a look on a more sustainable approach when it comes to plastic. But at the regular local warungs I still get the feeling that the people don’t know about the whole plastic issue. How do you manage to get all these people on board – locals, tourists and foreign residents?

Melati: We often think about how we can get the locals on board for the 2018-sustainability-thinking-mindset. One of the ways how we get them on board is through education at the schools that is empowering the youth. What we recently started at the end of last year is our social enterprise with 40 local women in the mountains of Bali to produce alternative bags from recycled or donated material. That automatically, through a very hands-on-approach empowers them that plastic isn’t the solution. There are lots of alternatives around the corner which are way more environmentally friendly, socially engaging and economically boosting. It provides them with an income. So showcasing solutions that are circular. That incorporate the circular economy, the circular systems. That really gets the local communities on board with it. We call it Mountain Mamas. Each of these women will get independently paid and then we we sell it to the retailers across Bali. 50% of the profit goes back in the community where then they can invest and use that money for waste management system, education for the children or public health care. That’s a new concept for the Balinese here and it goes back to their philosophy that every single person in the community has their role to play. This feeds back in to their concept and tradition everybody has to contribute. So in one of our pilot village we get the women involved, we have school programs with the kids and then we also have with the local authorities which are mostly male, involved in approving things and getting things rolling on the waste management implementation and things like that.

Nevertheless I often get the feeling that caring about the environment is a privileged thing to do. What could we do to implement these change making thoughts in all social classes?

Isabel: One way to get everyone involved is making it relatable to them. Cause a lot of times when we talk about the plastic problem we throw these big numbers and the facts out there. You know it’s a big problem but is it really going to affect me? Here in Indonesia a lot of the locals often don’t have access to information or solutions. Back in the west waste management facilities are a service giving to you by the government. But here in Bali there is no pick up service, no waste management, recycling stations.

But there are a few, right?

Isabel: There are a few, but they are in the private sector. You pay for the service out of your own pocket. If you want it you have to pay for it. So that’s why a lot of the locals can’t afford this kind of solutions. Since there is no other one it’s often very difficult for them to have practical solutions. Education and making solutions accessible to the general public is something that is so important. Because in the end we use plastic for two reasons. Because it’s cheap and it’s easy. So if you create solutions everybody can have and easy to use as plastic and economically affordable then it’s really easy to switch over to the alternatives, right?

Melati: Going back to the privileged part, for those of us who are privileged to act on that change making things it’s not enough to talk about it. It’s about going out there and doing something with it. Looking at the problem as it is one is sort of a blessing because problems like having our beaches completely packed to the point where it is a huge state of emergency it triggers something inside of the people and they will invent something, create some sort of solution. That’s were we have to connect with the local community that live with it on an everyday basis and empower them or use our voices to connect the dots. Be the bridges. I’ve learned over the last five years that young people and the younger generation can really act as bridges, connecting the government to the public, companies to the government. Just connecting the dots and really working together. But I also really think that to empower the local community and have them as part of the solutions at least here it’s about providing the solutions to them. Because we reached almost a point of helplessness.

How do you see that in daily life?

Melati: We live close to the beach and we like to go there every other day to watch the sunset. There was this older man who comes almost every day. He also collects all the garbage and we were kind of following and watching while we were having conversations. But in the end of the day when we were all going home he dumps it all in a pile and lights it on fire. At first we thought immediately we want to stop that fire. But we took this as an opportunity. So we went up to him and just like the climate change deniers we asked him: Why? Why are you burning it? He looked at us and said: What else am I supposed to do? That was such an eye opening moment because, yes what else was he supposed to do with it? That made me realize a guy like that on our local beach who is 45 years old, has his own children. He knew about the issue. He knew that what he was doing was bad. The awareness was there but you can only go so far where he is right now. Us and our team we focus on making that impact with the help of the government to create and changing environmental policies. We have to go from the bottom up and the top down has to meet us in the middle.

What happens to the trash you collect on your beach clean ups?

Isabel: Last year and this year as well we teamed up with those private sector or other organizations, small village-scaled recycling sectors. They will take in their trash from their area.

Why are beach clean ups so important? Or is it just a drop at the bucket?

Melati: Beach Clean Ups are not and can’t be the final solution. But its a great tool of awareness and getting everyone involved. We’ve got a huge number of people joining us and agreeing that something needs to happen. Action needs to be taken. It’s a great tool of education to make people aware and allow them to be part of the solution. To show them that they can contribute and make a difference.

Isabel: The plastic issue is so complex. It’s never that one solution. You have to take on it from so many different ways.

Melati: 2018 we all are falling into the habit of posting a picture on social media doing clean ups. Like I said it’s a nice tool of awareness. It’s a nice way to get people thinking and that people are changing their mindset towards the plastic issue. But we don’t get stuck thinking that this is the final solution. Recently the national government released a sort of enforcement where they decided a three-month-clean-up-process. That was issued by the ministry of environment. That’s great but it’s another easy thing to say for the government we did something. So the bigger picture thinking shows that this is just a tool of awareness.

What are your Top-3-advices in avoiding plastic (waste)?

Isabel: So the first thing is always caring an alternative bag – a lifetime bag, cause it’s not single-use. Use a reusable water bottle and your own metal, glass or bamboo straw that you can clean. Bring your own spoons and forks. Another tip is really looking into other alternatives and what’s available around you in your local area. Not only for yourself but also to show your family and friends what’s available and that there is an option.

Melati: It all begins with the change of your own mindset. Leading by example is so important. We haven’t use one single plastic bags since the years we are campaigning and it didn’t change our lifestyle drastically. It’s not impossible. That is one thing where our friends are still surprised. They are influenced by that. They see and hear that. They can do it? Oh, then maybe I can do it too. It’s changing their mindset to no excuse for single use.

Melati (left) and Isabel at our meeting in February in front of the Bye Bye Plastic Bags office in Canguu, Bali

You have been on the Forbes-list for 10 most inspiring women of the year and campaigned all around the world. Is there a certain pressure to fulfill your mission?

Melati: In getting Bali plastic bag free, yes! As a seventeen-year-old for me personally there was a lot of pressure. On top of graduating a year earlier. On top of the social life. On top of becoming an activist and a change maker. It was definitely intense to have the worlds eye on Bali and Bye Bye Plastic Bags but at the same time I think of all the different things we managed to accomplish because we were riding the wave of Bye Bye Plastic Bags. All the education, the different mindsets that we have changed, the upcoming projects that have started because of what they saw what’s possible of our demonstration. For that I’m endlessly grateful. The time for change was never better then now. And on a personal note I think Bye Bye Plastic Bags has done so much more then we could have ever imagined because when we started we had absolutely no plan, no strategy. We started with 10 and 12 and we’ve been working on this longer then a high school experience and none of us have graduated high school yet. It’s ridiculous. It’s so insane and intense as well. So in that perspective, yes there is a lot of pressure in fulfilling but the ball is really at the government. Now it’s the question: What are we waiting for? And when are we going to see the action take place? 2018 are still ten months left to go and I’m not losing faith or becoming a pessimist because I strongly believe Bali can lead as an island example for the rest of Indonesia to really see what’s possible.

I can imagine it’s pretty cool to have your sister on the side when changing the world. But as you live and work together so closely for all the past years now, are there sometimes any difficulties coming up? And if so, how do you solve that?

Melati: If you would have called us yesterday it would be a little different. (laughs) No, I think we had such a beautiful upbringing. That had such an impact in allowing us of being who we are today. With a mum from Holland, a dad from Java, growing up on the island of Bali. We had such a beautiful open-minded place and space to be able to grow up. That also shows up in our relationship as sisters. We were each others best friends, holding each others hands.

Isabel: Were?

Melati: We ARE each others best friends and we are still holding each others hands all the way from baby until high school. It’s going to be the hardest thing for us to be separated once I graduated.

Isabel: Even before Bye Bye Plastic Bags started we were a lot closer then normal siblings. We do everything together. We love each other with our entire being. Without Melati Bye Bye Plastic Bags as a movement wouldn’t be where it is today. Of course we are loving siblings but sometimes we yell on each other but also our upbringing didn’t allow us to be really mad of each other for more then an hour. We are super close and like Melati said we are each others best friends.

Which 3 words describe your sister best?

Isabel: Passionate. She’s is crazy but grounded.

Melati: Queen, creative and Earth.

And what are your plans for the future after you finished school?

Melati: My plan is to graduate a year early. So I have less than four months to go before graduating in June. I want to focus on more passion projects. And because of the opportunities that presented themselves through Bye Bye Plastic Bags. The amazing network that we have been able to build. I felt like that I need to take as much advantage as possible. I want to jump on them as soon as possible. And as we are going to Green School that was always a possibility in alternative education. So what I’m hoping to do after graduation is focusing on our next project which has a lot more to do with youth empowerment and making sure that the younger generation has all the tools they need and all the emotional support they feel like they need to be the world leaders and sort out the developing projects.

Isabel: I will definitely be a part of this project as well. But these next few years I just need getting through high school and being a normal teenager. As normal as my life can get.

Melati and Isabel Wijsen, Bambi Award 2017 in the theater at Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, Copyright: Eventpress Fuhr for Hubert Burda Media, date 16.11.2017

In Berlin you attended your first red carpet event and won an award for your actions. It’s said that the Bambi stands for people with a vision and creativity who stood out with their successes throughout the year in the media. Do you feel that this success the media is presenting reflects the true situation locally?

Melati: It’s very interesting to be teenagers in this world because we were born into a world of technology. Social Media is a huge part of our everyday life. Especially with Bye Bye Plastic Bags and the world attention that we are receiving I think there is definitely an aspect where I’m almost afraid of the power that social media and media in general has to tell the story it wants to tell. No matter how often we tell our story reporters, journalists, media outlets will hear what they want to hear and have so much power and influence towards readers around the world. So I definitively think the 2018 point has really highlighted Bali in a very unique position where everybody was convinced the Indonesian government will do it also when the Bali government did nothing or said nothing to it. So it was really easy for them to get a lot of excitement for Bali. But now we are in 2018 and the media helps in that way that people ask the questions. The more questions people ask the more it shows that the public pressure is on. But we need to channel it this time and use the media this time to really show that the public pressure is on and play it back to the government because like I said before it’s really up to them. We did everything we can up to this point as a youth movement and now it’s the turn of the government.

Isabel: The media can really go both ways. It definitely has the power to bring issues such the plastic problem here on Bali locally on an international level. But sometimes when you hear these big headlines „Bali to be plastic bag free by 2018“ it’s like this is happening but the follow-up behind  the headline and the story lacks. And that’s when local NGO’s get to say something internationally but the follow-up is the most important part. The world that we are living in and the attention span people are having now doesn’t allow for a follow-up. So unfortunately the headline is all what it makes and „Bali plastic bag free by 2018“ was a hot one.

What do you wish for women in 2018?

Isabel: One of my biggest wishes is for us to be respected not only by the other gender but also within ourselves, within the community of women.  We have to work together if we want to change this order between the sexes. Creating and finding this respect for one another – no matter what your gender, sexuality or race or anything is. Really becoming together as a whole, as equals. That’s definitely something I would love to see happening. Doesn’t matter your age, race, background, you are a human being. And that’s what it is.

Melati: You nailed it! For me as a women leader in business I want to learn more about politics. I hope that women in 2018 let themselves go for what they want to go for and not let being a woman hold them back ever or let someone else tell them that this is a reason not to go for it. Feeling empowered in our own skin, our own vaginas attached, with our boobs. With everything. The confidence that comes with being a woman, the caring, the love, everything that comes with being a woman. Use that and channel it to really dominate the world!

Melati and Isabel, thank you so much for that revealing and educational chat with you which I can’t let go since our meeting in February. You are the change. Thank you for that!

For more information:

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