Journals7 min read

Potato Head Meets Melati Wijsen

The 17-year-old changemaker on her visions for making Bali plastic-free, the power of collaboration and plans to go global

Melati Wijsen was just 12 years old when she first asked Bali to say goodbye to plastic bags. A student at the island’s environmentally progressive Green School, Melati was part of a new generation of changemakers proving that agency is granted through action, not age. Now 17 and with a high school degree already in hand, Melati is still leading the way for a plastic-free Bali while setting an example the rest of the world can follow.

Speaking at conferences around the world, Melati is on the springboard of taking her project global, but it is her Balinese upbringing that keeps informing her tireless work towards building a sustainable future. We catch up with her prior to the KOMITMEN event at Potato Head, which celebrates her initiative asking local businesses to join her in eliminating single-use plastics across the island.

How did your fight for a plastic-free Bali begin? I started Bye Bye Plastic Bags when I was 12 years old with my younger sister, who was 10 at the time. We were brought up in Bali, surrounded by nature with rivers and rice fields as our playground. Living so close to the ocean cultivated a deep love for the environment. At the same time, plastic pollution was growing everywhere, making it impossible to ignore, and we just reached a saturation point. The final push towards starting the project came from the inspiration we received at school in a lesson about changemakers and world leaders. But we noticed that they were all historical figures and we wanted to get to work immediately. So it was somewhere in-between indignation and inspiration that Bye Bye Plastic Bags emerged.

Having grown up on the island, how have you seen it change? I remember plastic being introduced to a community that was using more traditional and sustainable resources other than plastic. So when it was introduced and the consumption grew at such rapid speed, it didn’t take rocket science to understand that plastic would drown our island. Everyday life in Bali worked perfectly fine without plastic before because we had replacements for plastic—we would use banana leaves or wooden woven baskets when the fishermen transported their daily catch from the beach to the house. So when we talk about saying no to plastic we are actually talking about going back to certain old traditions.

Where do you think solutions lie? Overall the goal has always been to make Bali plastic-free by convincing people on the island to say no to single-use plastics. We live in a time of so much discovery, but we can still tap into much of our existing knowledge and apply it. With that said, I think the solution is a combination of going back to traditional materials but incorporating new thinking and letting that become part of the message.

Let us dive a little deeper into your projects. What have you been working on since you started? Our foundation rests on four main pillars: Education, Pilot Villages, One Island One Voice and Going Global. In terms of education, we have created two educational booklets, all in the Indonesian language. We truly believe that change happens through education in every classroom so we have spoken to over 25.000 students around the world in the past five years, which is where I really see the impact.

Interaction with the local communities happens through our Pilot Village program and we are currently working with a select number of islands on the island focusing on socialisation, changing of mindsets and introducing solutions to a plastic-free village.

One Island One Voice emerged from the urge to create change but also realising that banning plastic bags will not cut it: What about plastic bottles and straws? We received so many requests for beach cleanups and collaborations that we decided to change the movement into something bigger, which today acts as an umbrella platform for like-minded organisations and NGOs.

Going Global is the newest aspect, it enables interaction with young leaders around the world, which is one of my favourite parts. We are currently present in 25 locations around the world and is led by kids in middle school, high school and university, for whom we have created a starter-kit and a how-to handbook—something I sometimes wish I had had when I first started out.

Can you tell us about KOMITMEN? KOMITMEN operates under One Island, One Voice. When we went to government meetings we always heard three excuses: We have to wait for the national government to make a difference, the people are not ready and neither are businesses or the private sector. We have tried to debunk all of them. Bali has autonomy so we do not have to wait for the national government. Also, the people are ready. If we can get all these people together for beach cleanups—35,000 in two years, who have collected 105 tonnes of plastic—and educate the kids, then it is up to the government to bring more accessible solutions to the table.

Then there are the businesses. We were sitting on this for a while but the KOMITMEN was really what it took to prove that the businesses on Bali are ready to be part of the change. So we set the goal of having 1,000 Bali-based businesses sign the KOMITMEN and leave the plastic industry before the end of 2018. That is the narrative that we are taking with us; I’m speaking at seven different conferences this month to spread the message, because we really want to see change happen this year.

Are you hoping to take KOMITMEN to more places? Definitely. We already have access to so many locations around the world and I see it as a model that could be replicated. We often talk about the power held by the consumer within the plastic-free discourse, but KOMITMEN provides the opportunity for businesses to join in. There are so many layers to this but ultimately it is all interconnected and we are here to connect the dots. Times are changing, and for the better, because a lot of young people are raising their voices and creating change. We need to start changing mindsets and perspectives on inequality, diversity and development to really move towards a sustainable future.

What have you learned over the last five years? Collaboration is key. I think Potato Head is more than ready to bring sustainability to the forefront, so our partnership made perfect sense. We will not get anywhere if we keep thinking that we are going to do it alone because we are all looking towards the same goal. It is not about reinventing the wheel, it is about working together to make it go faster.

How are you hoping to see Bali in 10 years? I hope to see a plastic-free Bali 10 years from now and I hope that we have found a way to connect back to Tri Hita Karana, a traditional philosophy and way of living from Bali that my sister and I were brought up with. It means living in harmony with the people around you, the environment around you and the spirit within. Beyond being plastic-free and connecting back to Tri Hita Karana, Bali has the potential to be a pioneering island for sustainability and set an example for the rest of the world. I call this home, which is why I fight so hard and I really think our voices and our choices will be the drivers of change. We do also need to be more open to receiving mentorship from the outside, but the heartbeat of Bali is definitely its people.

Published on 01/02/2024 by Potato Head