The Wijsen Sisters Spearhead an International Movement to Say Goodbye to Plastic Bags

The Indonesian island of Bali, with its forested mountains, coral reefs, and palm-fringed beaches, is often associated with paradise. Unfortunately, it also lays claim to another, more sinister, distinction: according to a 2015 Science journal report, Indonesia is the second largest plastic marine waste polluter in the world (trailing only China). But two sisters—Melati and Isabel Wijsen—are committed to changing that dismal rep. In 2013, when they were 12 and 10 years old, respectively, they created Bye Bye Plastic Bags, an initiative dedicated to helping Bali become plastic bag–free.

The sisters were inspired to create a movement by a school lesson that focused on change-makers such as Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi. “My sister and I went home that day thinking, Well, what can we do as kids living on the island of Bali?” Melati told NPR. “[W]e didn’t want to wait until we were older to start making a difference.” A visit to the beach and they didn’t have to look farther for inspiration. “It got to the point where on weekends when we would go to our childhood beach, if we went swimming there, a plastic bag would wrap around your arm. And you say just, enough is enough.”

The sisters gathered some friends and began to spread awareness through school and community workshops. They organized beach cleanup campaigns. And under the auspices of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, they’ve worked with students to build “river booms,” which catch trash otherwise destined to float into the ocean. Spinoff initiatives such as Mountain Mamas, which empowers women living in the mountains of Bali to make bags from donated and recycled materials, also inform the cause.

Melati and Isabel have taken their anti-plastic message abroad, in the process serving as a model of youth empowerment: they’ve given a TED Talk and spoken at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, as well as the International Monetary Fund World Bank Group Forum in Bali. Their influence can be measured in concrete terms. As Melati told NPR, “[Bye Bye Plastic Bags is] actually now in 28 locations around the world, and it’s all led by young people. We’ve created a starter kit and a handbook that guides them through this process of how to start a movement.”

It’s a journey. In December 2017, Bali was still so beset by plastic waste washing ashore that the local government declared a “garbage emergency.” And this video, filmed by British diver Rich Horner in 2018, gives devastating testimony to the scope of the problem. But the Wijsen sisters are making progress. In December 2018, the new governor of Bali announced a law prohibiting single-use plastic in 2019. That’s huge in Indonesia’s burgeoning consumer market, where thoughtful packaging—no more plastic-encased single-use shampoo sachets; no more single-serve units of peanuts or keropok (deep-fried crackers)—could potentially make a sizable dent in the problem. The Indonesian government has also pledged to reduce plastic pollution by 70% by 2025.

Melati understands that change of this scale takes time. “Dancing with politicians—it’s three steps forward, two steps back, and then again and again,” she told CNBC. “But I understand that we need to be doing it together.” And for Melati, inspiring her peers to take action is key to making change. As she told NPR, “For us, everything is happening in our lifetime, right? So we have to be the ones to start working toward the future and the world that we want to be a part of.”

Thumbnail credit: “Our campaign to ban plastic bags in Bali” | Melati and Isabel Wijsen via

Janice Deal is a writer, an editor, and a lover of found objects. Her short-story collection, The Decline of Pigeons (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2013), was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her first novel, The Sound of Rabbits, was recently named a finalist in the Many Voices Project Prose competition. Janice lives in Downers Grove, Illinois, with her husband, daughter, and three disreputable cats.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

Send to friend

Download our ESME app for a smoother experience.

Get the app Get the app