When it comes to making a difference, the only things stopping anyone are hesitation and procrastination. Proving that one shouldn’t wait to take action is Melati Wijsen, co-founder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB), the youth-led organisation that aims to empower people to say no to single-use plastic.
It was at the serene Suasana Restaurant, Aston at Kuningan Suites when Indonesia Tatler caught up with the brunette who has hit many headlines. Donning her BBPB tee with pride, the articulate 17-year-old shared the life-changing moment when she and her sister started the organisation at the tender ages of 12 and 10, respectively.
What motivated you to start Bye Bye Plastic Bags?
Growing up on the island of Bali, plastic was literally everywhere. Living in a home that’s only surrounded by nature, from rice fields to the ocean and the beach, it played a huge part in our childhood and it wasn’t rocket science to see that plastic was having a negative impact to it.
At that time, Isabel and I were learning about people like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Lady Diana, and Ibu Kartini. We were 10 and 12 years old, but I do remember going home that day, looking at my sister and saying, “Hey Bell, we really have to do something.” We didn’t want to wait until we were older to make a difference. All of the people we were learning about were adults, but we said, well, what can we do as kids on the island of Bali? So we just brainstormed out of passion and good intention and we set off on this journey.
When you sat down with your sister, what was the first thing you did and the first idea that popped in your head?
We knew we had to pull a team together, so we started contacting our closest friends to join us. We learned that 40 other countries around the world have already said no to plastic bags. So being so young that’s something that you look at and say, “Wow, OK, 40 other countries have banned plastic bags! Come on Bali, come on Indonesia, we have to do it!”
Most of the countries reached that by petition, so being the older sister, I set one up through an online platform and within the first 24 hours we had more than 6,000 signatures. It was our favourite thing to wake up and click the refresh button and just see those numbers double or pile up.
Was it a worldwide petition?
It was. We knew that there are people in Bali and in Indonesia that believe our country should be plastic-bag-free, but there was also a huge international momentum, and I think that’s where we really could feel the click that this was something that people had been waiting for.
Are the BBPB members that you mentioned, your close friends, still there right now?
Yes, some of them have moved away from Bali and have taken BBPB back to their home countries. Because of that, we now have a team in Australia and in Greece, for example. And yes, some of our team members are still with us today but we have a huge new flood of fresh faces almost every other new school year.
What are some of the initiatives that you undertake internationally?
To give you an idea, we have four main pillars that we focus on: education, pilot billages, “one island, one voice”, and globalisation. Education is really at our core because change happens when there is knowledge. We’ve spoken to more than 20,000 kids at workshops and talks and provided booklets to ignite classroom discussions about plastic pollution, the environment, the ocean, and sustainable development goals.
Next, we have the pilot villages, which is where we interact with the local communities. This entails going into the warungs, providing alternative bags, doing river trash boom projects with the schools, and socialisation with the villages.
Our third pillar focus is “One Island, One Voice”. We couldn’t stop with just the plastic bags, so we created this to unite Bali-based businesses, organisations, and projects that can connect through passion.
Fourth is going global, which is the newest and probably fastest-growing baby in BBPB. Students from all over the world, after watching our videos online or reading an article, reach out saying: “I want to do the same from where I come from.” Because of that, we can now be found in 28 locations around the world and we have Global Team Leader calls where all 28 of them update me on their progress. There’s a lot of excitement, a lot of questions, and we only have this once a month when we could.
Going back to the pilot villages, one of the main reasons people still use plastic is because it’s more affordable, especially for those of lower socioeconomic statuses. Do you see a way around this?
I think the only reason why we use plastic is for two reasons: it’s cheap and it’s easy. If we knew that there were better alternatives out there, we would jump on them the next day. The only flaw or the thing keeping us back is, like you said, the economic status. Alternatives can still be three times the price of an average plastic bag, for example.
If we introduce alternatives to the market and they become more popular, then the price will reduce. I think this should be the responsibility of businesses that actually have the budget to introduce these at a faster rate so that such alternatives become more accessible for smaller businesses such as the warungs. If we encourage large corporations and businesses to change their packaging and have them look at the design failures, the circular economy, and their extended producer responsibilities more seriously, then changing people’s mindsets will become easier.
Being so young, what were the challenges you and your sister faced when you first started in 2013?
So here’s the thing: I think that without even realising it, our age was probably the most powerful tool we could have wished for because we had a voice that everybody was waiting to hear. What we were campaigning about wasn’t anything new. Some 10 to 15 years ago, people were already raising their voices to raise awareness about plastic and yet nobody was doing anything about it. I think the difference here is that five years ago the timing was perfect—the people were waiting for it and nobody can turn away from a young person raising his or her voice. From there, we gained momentum and asked ourselves: how do we become more than just an inspiration? How can we be taken more seriously and have a seat at the table?
Do you have any advice for the younger generation who want to make a big impact like you did but are afraid that their voices won’t be heard due to their age?
It all comes down to finding that one thing that you’re really passionate about. Whether it’s dancing, protecting the oceans, or advocating for human rights, nurture that passion, find out what your strongest skills are, and go for it. But I will say that lesson number one for us has always been teamwork. No matter how good your idea is, you will always need a like-minded group to bring your ideas forward into the next phase. Remember, change starts with you.