In years to come when Bali is once again a pristine, plastic free island, people will say: this is where it started. Stephanie Mee catches up with Melati and Isobel, founders of Bye Bye Plastic Bags. Image: Oscar Munar.
Melati, you and your sister Isabel were just 12 and 10 years old respectively when you started Bye Bye Plastic Bags. In what ways do you think being young worked for you?
When we started BBPB you have to remember we had no business plan, no strategy and no funding, but what we did have was a clear vision and LOTS of passion. This was definitely an innocent and maybe naïve way of thinking like children. To be honest, I think our age has been our greatest tool. It’s served as a powerful voice and a wake-up call for the older generation. We made things happen because “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” After all, we kids may be only 25% of the world’s population but we are 100% of the future.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced and how have you overcome them?
We’ve had many ups and downs during our years campaigning. Our team sometimes struggled with long-term commitments because we wanted change NOW. And Bali is a very transitory island, so there were many people who came and went. Our funding was and still is a challenge, but we manage because people always want to help. And lastly, I guess connecting it to the first point of long-term commitment, it’s been a challenge to balance the agenda of a teenager and that of a changemaker.
BBPB has gone on to become a national and international movement with teams in over 35 locations across the globe. In your opinion, what are some of the key factors that have made the campaign so successful?
We made it really fun for other young kids to join. We created a handbook or starter kit that took them through a journey of what it was going to be like, including the do’s and don’ts and how to’s. Also I really feel it’s the power of the younger generation. We know we can’t wait until we graduate high school to take action. It also really helps to have a network and a team of like-minded people. The 35 global team leaders are one of my favorite aspects of BBPB because they give me energy.
You also founded the One Island, One Voice movement. Can you tell us a bit about that and the KOMITMEN campaign?
One Island One Voice was created because we were building so much momentum with BBPB that we wanted to ensure everybody working towards the same or similar goals could use that momentum. Today OIOV is a people-powered movement that acts as an umbrella for like-minded organisations in waste management or prevention. With One Island One Voice, we quickly learned that we couldn’t just stop at saying no to single-use plastic bags. What about the straws, the bottles and the cups? So this is where the KOMITMEN campaign came in. We launched it in July 2018 and approached Bali-based businesses to join the movement. To date we have over 400 locations that have signed the KOMITMEN and made goals to eliminate single-use plastics.
You must be elated that the governor of Bali has now banned single-use plastics on Bali. What are your thoughts on that?
As you can imagine, our team is so happy! Finally after six long and hard years of campaigning, and thanks to the effort of many, Bali is where it is today. Of course there is still a lot to do, but our team at Bye Bye Plastic Bags is ready to do our best where we are needed. The consistency of implementing the regulation has us worried and how the right alternatives (and which ones) will be introduced. This is a great opportunity for young Indonesian entrepreneurs to jump on.
In regards to the green movement, where would you like to see Bali in five years?
We really believe that Bali can be an example for the rest of Indonesia and the world. We’re off to a good start with this ban on single-use plastic bags, but what’s next? We’ve learned that over the course of six years, the long-term solution is waste management, separation and collection. Hopefully in the next five years we’ll have that sorted out and the consumption of single-use plastics will be decreased significantly. Why not go back to banana leaves? Or become a hub for sustainable and zero-waste lifestyles? Also we need to stop building over our nature, create more national parks and preserve Balinese traditions.
You’re constantly on the go campaigning and sharing your message around the world. Where are you now and what are you working on?
Right now we’re home in Bali. Bel is in her 11th year at high school and I’m on my GAP year. I start filming my documentary in a month and will be travelling to eight corners of the world to find other young changemakers. We’ve been travelling a lot, but for now we’re enjoying the super sunsets on Bali as much as we can.
Do you have any big plans for 2019?
Actually yes! We’ve been working on something really exciting for the past three years, and it’s all about youth empowerment. We’re about to launch YOUTHTOPIA, so fingers crossed and wish us good luck. More good things to come in 2019!
Even though you’ve been successful in getting your message out, we know it can’t be easy fighting the good fight. What keeps you motivated and inspired on the tough days?
Yes, it can be hard and lonely sometimes. I love seeing and learning about other people’s projects and ideas, so that keeps me hopeful. And if that doesn’t do the trick, then a kelapa muda and Netflix will help me over it.
What advice would you give to other young people who want to get involved in making the world a better place?
We’ve learned so many lessons, and that makes us want to share so many things. The most important one though is to find your passion. What is it that you really, really, really care about? What gets you excited? Find that one thing and go for it. Don’t forget the power of a team around you. Surround yourself with like-minded people to help you take your idea to the next level. And lastly, don’t forget to have fun.