Two sisters are saving their island

The Indonesian vacation paradise of Bali is at risk of suffocating from garbage. Two teenagers decided to fight back. They launched a campaign against plastic pollution and went on a hunger strike. The governor gave in: starting in 2018, Bali will be free of plastic bags. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Isabel and Melati Wijsen are ridding Bali of plastic bags with their “Bye Bye Plastic Bags” campaign.

Isabel and Melati Wijsen are ridding Bali of plastic bags with their “Bye Bye Plastic Bags” campaign.

When Isabel and Melati Wijsen were 10 and 12 years old, they learned about “important” people at their school, such as Nelson Mandela, Lady Diana and Mahatma Gandhi.

“Melati and I went home that day and thought: ‘What can we as children do here in Bali, what we can we now?’” recalls Isabel Wijsen. The two Indonesian sisters sat down together to brainstorm and quickly came to the problem of the mountain of trash overrunning Bali each day – over 680 cubic metres of plastic in just one day. If heaped into one pile, it would be as high as a 14-storey tower, say the girls.

From vacation paradise to garbage dump

It wasn’t always like this on Bali. In the past, people worked primarily with biological materials that were 100 per cent recyclable. But with the boom in tourism and growing Western influences, the use of plastic products grew. Small family-owned restaurants – called warungs – began serving drinks in plastic bags instead of glasses. A quick drink on the go.

And as regular garbage collection doesn’t exist in many places, most of the garbage is either burned or simply dumped into rivers. The garbage eventually makes its way into the sea or washes up on the beaches.

“It was easy to choose a subject. But was it a goal that we could achieve as children?” the sisters asked themselves. The two sisters didn’t think that they would be able to clear away the entire mountain of trash by themselves, and so they decided to concentrate on plastic bags.

Their message: Bali should ban plastic bags and the Balinese should say “no” to plastic bags. And so their anti-plastic bags campaign was born. They gave it the simple name “Bye Bye Plastic Bags”. That was three years ago.

Students didn’t give up

“Since then it’s been our mission to get the people on Bali to say ‘no’ to plastic bags,” the sisters say. But the road hasn’t always been easy. They began with the idea to collect one million signatures against plastic bags. At the same, they organised clean-up activities on the beach, flash mobs and school presentations.

“The most difficult thing for us as teenagers is to commit to something for so long,” they say. All the campaign activities are on weekends “but that’s also the time when kids want to hang out with their friends or go surfing”.

The teenagers also underestimated how difficult it would be to gather one million signatures. Their project hit a wall and the signatures trickled off, but they were determined not to give up.

Hunger strike like Gandhi

The breakthrough came when they did something completely different. Inspired by their hero Gandhi, the two organised a hunger strike to get the attention of the Balinese governor. Following the advice of a nutritionist, they fasted from sunrise to sunset after being forbidden by their parents to go on a total hunger strike.

By the symbolic action had its intended effect.

Governor Made Mangku Pastika met with the girls and was won over by their cause. Today they describe him as their friend and a supporter of their initiative. When the environmental authorities on the island finally announced that Bali would be free of plastic bags starting in 2018, the girls’ victory was complete.

When the two were invited in January to London to give a TED talk, they didn’t speak about their successes but rather the problems they faced along the way. But the most important lesson is that “kids can accomplish things”, they said at the time.

“Us kids may only be 25 per cent of the world’s population, but we are 100 per cent of the future,” they said in their TED talk.

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