“We Do Not Have the Luxury of Time”: Teen-Sister Climate Activists on How to Create Less Waste, Right Now

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Melati & Isabel Wijsen
Photo: Erik Ginanjar Nugraha

On September 20 this year, ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, millions of people around the world, led by kids and teens, took part in climate strikes to draw attention to climate change and urge lawmakers to tackle the crisis. Marches were organized in more than 150 countries, and all seven continents were represented (yes, even Antarctica). Teen sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen want the world to know the moment hasn’t passed — the climate crisis is ongoing, and so is their work against it.

“We’re unstoppable; you saw us on the streets,” 18-year-old Melati said. “Millions of us came out. It’s an unstoppable movement that’s demanding change,” she told world leaders at the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit, which was held in New York on the same day that 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg addressed the U.N.

“At the rate that we’re going, we can no longer continue,” she said. “There are existing solutions that we can plug into our everyday life.” Melati and her sister, Isabel, 16, have been coming up with practical solutions to reduce waste since 2013, when they were 12 and 10 years old, respectively. That’s when they launched Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB), in response to all the garbage they saw littering the rice fields and beaches in their native Bali.

At the time, almost everything you could buy on the island came wrapped in plastic or was put into a plastic bag, and the same was true for the rest of Indonesia. According to the journal Science, Indonesia is responsible for 3.2 metric tons of plastic waste in the ocean annually, the world’s second-biggest polluter of marine debris (China comes first). A viral video of a British diver swimming off the coast of Bali in early 2018 helped put these statistics in perspective.

“Climate change is happening in our lifetime. We know that we do not have the luxury of time,” Melati told InStyle earlier this year. The first thing she and Isabel did was spread awareness, telling friends, classmates, and local business owners about the harmful effects of plastic waste. Then they went further, creating educational materials to distribute in schools, providing businesses with reusable bags to give their customers, organizing beach cleanups, and starting a petition to lobby the Balinese government to ban plastic bags. Their efforts through BBPB eventually caught the attention of then-Governor Made Mangku Pastika, who signed a memorandum of understanding with the Wijsens to work toward an island-wide ban. (Last December, a little over four years after the MOU was signed, Bali’s new governor, Wayan Koster, announced an island-wide ban on single-use plastics, like shopping bags, straws, and foam food packaging, which took effect this summer.)

Melati and Isabel also initiated projects like Mountain Mamas, which empowers local women and encourages sustainability. BBPB helped train women in the Balinese village of Wanagiri Kauh, to handmake reusable bags from donated or recycled material. Once the bags are sold, half the profits go toward the work of BBPB, and the other half helps fund health care, local schools, and waste management in Wanagiri Kauh. “What we’ve come to learn is that there are many solutions that add up to the overall goal of sustainability and a better world,” Melati says.

Thinking back to when she and Isabel started BBPB, Melati says, “We were inspired by people who throughout history created massive impact.” (The sisters have cited Princess Diana, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Nelson Mandela as role models.) “But if we look to what’s happening today around the world, the people that keep inspiring us are the youth.” Among the Wijsens’ “personal heroes,” Melati says, are Thunberg and Nadya Okamoto. “They motivate us beyond words with their incredible work.”

Now, with over 40 youth-run chapters worldwide, BBPB has expanded its reach far beyond Bali and motivated young people across the globe to take action. But that doesn’t mean the sisters expect everyone out there to create change on their level. When asked what the average person can do to reduce their carbon footprint, Melati responds, “Whether it’s saying no to single-use plastic bags, bottles, or straws; cutting out palm oil; or going on shared drives, change starts with your every decision. Do your research and find out what works in your community.”

What’s the simplest change you can make? It begins with awareness. Before buying anything, she says, “Always ask yourself two questions: Where does it come from, and where does it go?”

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