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Melati and Isabel Wijsen: Our campaign to ban plastic bags in Bali

September 29, 2015

Plastic bags are essentially indestructible, yet they're used and thrown away with reckless abandon. Most end up in the ocean, where they pollute the water and harm marine life; the rest are burned in garbage piles, where they release harmful dioxins into the atmosphere. Melati and Isabel Wijsen are on a mission to stop plastic bags from suffocating their beautiful island home of Bali. Their efforts -- including petitions, beach cleanups, even a hunger strike -- paid off when they convinced their governor to commit to a plastic bag-free Bali by 2018. "Don't ever let anyone tell you that you're too young or you won't understand," Isabel says to other aspiring activists. "We're not telling you it's going to be easy. We're telling you it's going to be worth it."

Melati and Isabel Wijsen - Activists
Sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen are on a mission to ban plastic bags in Bali. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Melati Wijsen: Bali -- island of gods.
00:12
Isabel Wijsen: A green paradise.
00:17
MW: Or ...
00:20
a paradise lost.
00:22
Bali:
00:24
island of garbage.
00:26
IW: In Bali,
00:29
we generate 680 cubic meters
of plastic garbage a day.
00:30
That's about a 14-story building.
00:37
And when it comes to plastic bags,
00:41
less than five percent gets recycled.
00:43
MW: We know that changes the image
you may have of our island.
00:46
It changed ours, too,
when we learned about it,
00:50
when we learned that almost all
plastic bags in Bali end up in our drains
00:52
and then in our rivers
00:57
and then in our ocean.
00:58
And those that don't even
make it to the ocean,
01:00
they're either burned or littered.
01:03
IW: So we decided
to do something about it.
01:06
And we've been working
for almost three years now
01:08
to try to say no to plastic bags
on our home island.
01:11
And we have had
some significant successes.
01:14
MW: We are sisters,
01:18
and we go to the best school on earth:
01:20
Green School, Bali.
01:23
Green School is not only different
in the way that it is built out of bamboo,
01:25
but also in the way that it teaches.
01:30
We are taught to become leaders of today,
01:32
something a normal textbook cannot match.
01:36
IW: One day we had a lesson in class
01:39
where we learned about significant people,
01:41
like Nelson Mandela,
01:44
Lady Diana
01:45
and Mahatma Gandhi.
01:47
Walking home that day,
01:49
we agreed that we also
wanted to be significant.
01:50
Why should we wait until we were grown up
01:54
to be significant?
01:56
We wanted to do something now.
01:58
MW: Sitting on the sofa that night,
02:00
we brainstormed and thought
of all the issues facing Bali.
02:02
And one thing that stood out
to us the most
02:06
was the plastic garbage.
02:08
But that is a huge problem.
02:10
So we looked into what was
a realistic target for us kids:
02:13
plastic bags.
02:17
And the idea was born.
02:18
IW: We started researching,
02:20
and let's just say, the more we learned,
02:22
there was nothing good about plastic bags.
02:25
And you know what?
02:29
We don't even need them.
02:30
MW: We were really inspired
by the efforts to say no to plastic bags
02:32
in many other places,
02:36
from Hawaii to Rwanda
02:38
and to severals cities
like Oakland and Dublin.
02:40
IW: And so the idea turned into the launch
of "Bye Bye Plastic Bags."
02:43
MW: In the years
that we have been campaigning,
02:50
we have learned a lot.
02:52
Lesson number one:
02:55
you cannot do it all by yourself.
02:58
You need a big team of like-minded kids,
03:00
and so we formed
the Bye Bye Plastic Bags crew.
03:02
The volunteer team includes
children from all over the island,
03:06
from both international and local schools.
03:09
And together with them,
03:12
we started a multi-layered approach,
03:13
based on an on- and off-line
signature petition,
03:15
educational and inspirational
presentations at schools
03:18
and we raise general awareness
at markets, festivals, beach clean-ups.
03:22
And last but not least,
03:26
we distribute alternative bags,
03:27
bags like net bags,
03:29
recycled newspaper bags
03:31
or 100 percent organic material bags,
03:32
all made by local
initiatives on the island.
03:35
IW: We run a pilot village,
03:38
home of 800 families.
03:40
The village mayor was our first friend
03:42
and he loved our T-shirts, so that helped.
03:44
We focused on making the customers aware,
03:47
because that's where the change
needs to happen.
03:50
The village is already
two-thirds along the way
03:54
of becoming plastic bag free.
03:56
Our first attempts to get the government
of Bali on board failed.
03:59
So we thought,
04:04
"Hmm ... a petition
with one million signatures.
04:06
They can't ignore us, right?"
04:10
MW: Right!
04:12
IW: But, who would have guessed
04:14
one million signatures is, like,
a thousand times a thousand?
04:15
(Laughter)
04:20
We got stuck --
04:22
till we learned lesson number two:
04:24
think outside the box.
04:27
Someone mentioned
04:29
that the Bali airport handles
16 million arrivals and departures a year.
04:30
MW: But how do we get into the airport?
04:38
And here comes lesson number three:
04:41
persistence.
04:44
Off we headed to the airport.
04:45
We got past the janitor.
04:47
And then it was his boss's boss,
04:49
and then the assistant office manager,
04:51
and then the office manager,
04:53
and then ...
04:55
we got shuffled down
two levels and thought,
04:56
well, here comes the janitor again.
04:58
And after several days knocking on doors
05:01
and just being kids on a mission,
05:03
we finally got to the commercial
manager of Bali airports.
05:05
And we gave him the "Bali of plastic bags"
speech, and being a very nice man,
05:10
he said, [imitating the man's voice]
"I cannot believe what I'm about say,
05:14
but I'm going to give authorization
05:17
to collect signatures
behind customs and immigrations."
05:20
(Laughter)
05:23
(Applause)
05:24
IW: In our first hour and a half there,
05:28
we got almost 1,000 signatures.
05:30
How cool is that?
05:33
Lesson number four:
05:36
you need champions
at all levels of society,
05:37
from students to commercial
managers to famous people.
05:41
And thanks to the attraction
of Green School,
05:45
we had access to a steady
stream of celebrities.
05:48
Ban Ki Moon taught us
05:51
that Secretary-Generals
of the United Nations
05:52
don't sign petitions --
05:56
(Laughter)
05:58
even if kids ask nicely.
05:59
But he promised to spread the word,
06:00
and now we work closely
with the United Nations.
06:02
MW: Jane Goodall taught us
the power of a people's network.
06:05
She started with just one
Roots & Shoots group
06:08
and now she has 4,000 groups
around the world.
06:11
We are one of them.
06:15
She's a real inspiration.
06:16
If you're a fellow Rotarian,
06:18
nice to meet you.
06:20
We're Interactors,
06:21
the youngest department
of Rotary International.
06:22
IW: But we have also learned
much about patience,
06:26
MW: how to deal with frustrations,
06:29
IW: leadership,
06:31
MW: teamwork,
06:33
IW: friendship,
06:34
MW: we learned more
about the Balinese and their culture
06:35
IW: and we learned
about the importance of commitment.
06:38
MW: It's not always easy.
06:41
Sometimes it does get
a little bit hard to walk your talk.
06:43
IW: But last year, we did exactly that.
06:47
We went to India to give a talk,
06:50
and our parents took us to visit
06:52
the former private house
of Mahatma Gandhi.
06:53
We learned about the power
of hunger strikes
06:57
he did to reach his goals.
06:59
Yes, by the end of the tour,
07:01
when we met our parents again,
07:03
we both made a decision and said,
07:04
"We're going on a hunger strike!"
07:06
(Laughter)
07:08
MW: And you can probably
imagine their faces.
07:09
It took a lot of convincing,
07:12
and not only to our parents
07:14
but to our friends
and to our teachers as well.
07:16
Isabel and I were serious
about doing this.
07:19
So we met with a nutritionist,
07:22
and we came up with a compromise
07:24
of not eating from sunrise
to sunset every day
07:25
until the governor of Bali
would agree to meet with us
07:30
to talk about how to stop
plastic bags on Bali.
07:32
IW: Our "mogak makan,"
as it is called in Bahasa Indonesia,
07:36
started.
07:40
We used social media to support our goal
07:42
and already on day two,
07:44
police started to come
to our home and school.
07:45
What were these two girls doing?
07:48
We knew we weren't making
the governor look his best
07:51
by doing this food strike --
07:53
we could have gone to jail.
07:55
But, hey, it worked.
07:57
Twenty-four hours later,
07:59
we were picked up from school
08:00
and escorted to the office
of the governor.
08:02
MW: And there he was --
08:05
(Applause)
08:06
waiting for us to meet and speak,
08:08
being all supportive
and thankful for our willingness
08:10
to care for the beauty
and the environment of Bali.
08:13
He signed a promise
08:16
to help the people of Bali
say no to plastic bags.
08:17
And we are now friends,
08:20
and on a regular basis,
08:21
we remind him and his team
of the promises he has made.
08:23
And indeed,
08:27
recently he stated and committed
08:28
that Bali will be
plastic bag free by 2018.
08:30
(Applause)
08:34
IW: Also, at the International Airport
of Bali, one of our supporters
08:43
is planning to start
a plastic bag-free policy by 2016.
08:47
MW: Stop handing out free plastic bags
08:53
and bring in your own reusable bag
08:55
is our next message to change
that mindset of the public.
08:56
IW: Our short-term campaign,
09:01
"One Island / One Voice,"
09:02
is all about this.
09:04
We check and recognize
the shops and restaurants
09:05
that have declared themselves
a plastic bag-free zone,
09:08
and we put this sticker at their entrance
09:11
and publish their names on social media
09:13
and some important magazines on Bali.
09:16
And conversely,
09:18
that highlights those
who do not have the sticker.
09:19
(Laughter)
09:22
MW: So, why are we actually
telling you all of this?
09:24
Well, partly, it is because we are proud
09:28
of the results that,
together with our team,
09:30
we have been able to reach.
09:32
But also because along the way,
09:34
we have learned that kids can do things.
09:36
We can make things happen.
09:39
Isabel and I were only 10 and 12 years old
09:41
when we started this.
09:44
We never had a business plan,
09:45
nor a fixed strategy,
09:47
nor any hidden agendas --
09:49
just the idea in front of us
09:51
and a group of friends working with us.
09:53
All we wanted to do
was stop those plastic bags
09:56
from wrapping and suffocating
our beautiful home.
09:58
Kids have a boundless energy
10:01
and a motivation to be the change
the world needs.
10:03
IW: So to all the kids of this beautiful
but challenging world:
10:08
go for it!
10:13
Make that difference.
10:14
We're not telling you
it's going to be easy.
10:16
We're telling you
it's going to be worth it.
10:19
Us kids may only be 25 percent
of the world's population,
10:22
but we are 100 percent of the future.
10:26
MW: We still have a lot of work to do,
10:30
but know that we still not stop
10:33
until the first question asked
when arriving at the Bali airports will be
10:35
Both: "Welcome to Bali,
10:40
do you have nay plastic bags to declare?"
10:41
(Laughter)
10:44
Om shanti shanti shanti om.
10:45
Thank you.
10:48
(Applause)
10:49

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Melati and Isabel Wijsen - Activists
Sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen are on a mission to ban plastic bags in Bali.

Why you should listen
Inspired by similar measures in other parts of the world, Melati and Isabel Wijsen launched the campaign Bye Bye Plastic Bags in 2013, which received worldwide support -- and recently succeeded in getting the island’s governor to commit to a ban by 2018. The two sisters, who frequent the environmentally minded Green School along with a crew of likely motivated kids, continue to ask the question: How can they make a difference in the world?
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