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She got plastic bags banned on Bali by 18. Now she wants to mobilize other young activists

When Melati Wijsen set out to rid Bali of plastic bags at the age of 12, she could hardly have imagined it would catapult her onto the world stage, leading a global movement of young social activists.

But then, that’s the power of her generation.

“Everything is happening in our lifetime, so we are pulled to the front lines from this other source,” Wijsen told CNBC Make It.

“Not an ego source, not a money-driven intention or a political agenda, it’s coming from a place where we have to do the right thing. That is the power that I think our generation has,” the now-19-year-old said at the Credit Suisse Supertrends webinar series 2020 on Wednesday.

Leading social change

Wijsen is the co-founder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a social initiative launched in 2013 with her younger sister, Isabel, then 10, to eliminate the use of single-use plastic bags on Bali.

Growing up on the Indonesian island — a popular holiday hot spot — the sisters saw daily how plastic was affecting their home. After China, Indonesia is the world’s largest plastic polluter. But it was during a school lesson on inspiring leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, that they were motivated to make a change.

Isabel and Melati Wijsen (left to right) with then-governor of Bali, Made Mangku Pastika, at the signing of their memorandum of understanding in 2014.

Bye Bye Plastic Bags

“We went home that day saying OK, we don’t want to wait until we’re older to start making a difference. We want to make change, positive impact now,” said Wijsen during a panel entitled “Change-makers: Taking the leap to save the planet.”

Weeks later, the pair had rallied school peers to join their cause, hosting meetings during stolen lunch breaks. In the months and years that followed, the activists galvanized their community to stage Bali’s Biggest Clean Up — an annual beach cleaning initiative which has so far seen some 57,500 people clear 155 tons of plastic from Bali’s shores — while committing businesses to cut plastic waste.

By 2018, aged 18 and 16, they succeeded in their mission to convince the Balinese government to ban single-use plastic bags — a measure that went into effect in July 2019. Today, Bye Bye Plastic Bags is a global youth movement with 50 teams in 29 countries. 

Mobilizing other youth activists

The success of the initiative has since led Wijsen to the global stage, where she has spoken about social and environmental issues with world leaders from the United Nations and the International Monetary Fund to the World Economic Forum.  

But still, change is not happening fast enough, she said. 

“We’re seeing people in power not use that power to their full potential — at least not for good and not fast enough,” said Wijsen. “Banning single-use plastic bags should not have taken six years,” she later added.

So Wijsen is instead turning her focus to assisting other youth-led, social and environmental movements.

Earlier this year, she and her sister launched Youthtopia as a “go-to HQ” for other young aspiring activists. Via a series of physical events and online tutorials, the social initiative aims to equip other would-be leaders with the skills needed to enact change, from public speaking to building business plans and interacting with governments. 

The hope is that those youth projects — which range from activism in indigenous communities to human trafficking and Black Lives Matter — will then be able to come at businesses and political leaders with practical solutions, which they can “scale up.”

“Our generation, what is unique to us, is that we cannot wait any longer, we don’t have the luxury of time,” said Wijsen. “So we’re not waiting for permission, we’re not waiting for regulation, but we’re going ahead with the actions and solutions right at our fingertips and we’re implementing them.”

Taking the next steps

The teen activist aims to drive that mission by leading from the front, sharing small changes that individuals can make or businesses they can engage with to make progress. 

“There’s this strong hunger and this urge for young people to get involved in creating impact, but sometimes they don’t know how to start, where to start,” Wijsen noted, outlining some tangible routes in. 

  • Empower yourself — “Know the power you have as a consumer and use it to your advantage,” said Wijsen, noting the power of reaching out to companies to question their social and environmental practices. “Sometimes companies are just waiting for these questions to come up so that they can have a discussion.”
  • Team up with partners — Identify a few like-minded groups or businesses who support your cause and exemplify them. “Find a couple heroes, uplift them, show that if they can do it, other businesses in the local area can do it,” said Wijsen, whose Commitment Campaign has so far signed up 500 businesses in Bali to remove all single-use plastics.
  • Engage with leaders — Reach out to organisations to see if they have a youth advisory board where you can share your ideas and initiative. “Sometimes they just don’t know how to take action. And that’s where, again, young people play a role in being that bridge,” she noted.

Don’t miss: Indonesia is the biggest plastic polluter after China. This 17-year-old wants to change that

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