When Melati and Isabel Wijsen, the founders of the Bali-based eco-movement Bye Bye Plastic Bags stood up at the United Nations in New York on June 9 this year to speak on World Oceans Day, it was a watershed moment for the green movement. It very publicly demonstrated that the concept of permaculture applied to education works.
Expressive, passionate, and just a little nervous, Melati, 16, and Isabel, 14, spoke for six minutes about a massive worldwide problem which has been apparent on Balinese beaches and in its surrounding oceans for decades, plastic pollution. Students of Green School Bali, the sisters have grown up on the island, experiencing first-hand how its environment has been progressively trashed.
“There’s no escaping it here,” Melati recently told CNN. “We didn’t want to wait until we were older to stand up for what we believe in.”
In her UN speech, Melati reminded the assembly that “every second breath we take comes from the ocean”.
“Not only does it produce 70 per cent of the oxygen we breathe, the ocean is responsible for more than 3.5 billion people, who still rely on it as their primary source of food,” she said.
“It also supports more than 80 per cent of life on Earth, so you can ask yourself the question: Why do we still treat our oceans so badly?”
“We all know solving the problem is not easy, the issues and the policies are complex,” added Isabel. “But it is worth it.”
“Saying no to plastic bags is the first step. Then waste management. Then a clean sea,” said Melati.
“Simple. And maybe it’s naïve of us kids to think in that way, but definitely not as complicated as everyone seems to pretend it is.
“It is not rocket science, but a change in mindset. It is shifting your mindset, one bag at a time,” she said.
The Wijsen sisters, daughters of Dutch property agent Elvira Wijsen and her husband, Javanese antique dealer Eko Wijsen, have been campaigning to reduce the use of plastic bags for the past four years, attending seminars including the 2014 Ocean Plastic Pollution Summit in California, INK Talk in India and TED Talk in London.
The success of the Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign has sparked an offshoot, One Island One Voice, a bid to bring together Bali’s environmental groups under one umbrella. The sisters organised beach clean-ups, made presentations at schools, campaigned on social media via Avaaz.org and spent long vigils at shopping centres and Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, clip-board in hand, collecting signatures to support their campaign. The aim was to collect a million signatures to pressure the Governor of Bali, Made Mangku Pastika, to ban the use of plastic bags.
The highly visible campaign collected more than 100,000 signatures and after 18 months of persistent badgering and even threats to go on a hunger strike, Melati and Isabel presented the Governor with a memorandum of understanding to make Bali plastic bag free, which he signed. The Bye Bye Plastic Bag campaign has since taken on a life of its own, spreading to countries including Nepal, Mexico, Italy, Colombia, Myanmar and Australia.
And while a memorandum of understanding is just a promise (and in politics promises can be broken) it’s heartening to see that these feisty Balinese sisters still have plenty of youthful energy to continue the fight. Bali now has a Clean and Green policy to encourage recycling and to help put a lid on littering and in February last year, 23 cities in Indonesia began trials in which consumers pay 200 rupiah (about 2 cents) for a plastic bag.
Placing a fee on plastic bags may dilute the problem, but in a tourism-based economy like Bali’s, it’s hard to see it working.
The throngs of tourists that visit Bali each year won’t even notice that the large department stores and countless clothing and wood carving stallholders, small and large supermarkets and higher-end fashion, leather and jewellery shops have all factored the cost of the plastic bags into their sale prices.
The bags will still be given to tourists, who will continue to use them to lug their food, drink and holiday bootie back to their hotel or resort, and where on departure day, they will use a few to pack in their luggage, and the rest of the plastic bags will be binned. The bags will end up in landfill or rubbish dumps, and when the next wet season comes, a tide of trash will again wash up on the beaches at Kuta, Seminyak and Sanur. The only people on Bali who will be forced to change their shopping habits are those who can least afford the 200 rupiah bag fee, local villagers living outside the buzzing coastal tourist strips.
The Wijsen sisters are right in their self-confessed naïve belief that the only way to make a significant impact on the pre-packaged, take-away trend of using petroleum-based plastic bags is to ban them. Based on current world consumption, plastic pollution in our oceans is predicted to outweigh all fish on the planet by 2050.
A US Ocean Conservancy report published in September 2015 indicated that more than half of the world’s plastic waste which ends up in the ocean originates from five South East Asian countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.
If the clean-up of plastic bags is to be approached seriously, and it must be, Indonesia is a good place to start. Indonesia is the planet’s second largest plastic polluter, with 10 per cent of the world’s marine plastic pollution coming from the massive archipelago of more than 17,000 islands.
A recent Aljazeera report said nearly 10 million free plastic bags are handed out in Indonesia every day.
In response, the Indonesian government has committed to the UN’s Clean Seas program by pledging $1 billion to reducing marine waste by 70 per cent by 2025.
Continues in – Bali: Plastic Purgatory or Green Dream? – Part 2
Bamboo Education Centre – Green School Bali
Melati and Isabel Wijsen at TED Talk London – TED
Bye Bye Plastic Bags clean-up team – Bye Bye Plastic Bags
Feature image – Melati and Isabel Wijsen – Green School Bali