Bali is the most popular island holiday destination in the Indonesian archipelago, attracting around 5 million tourists each year who come in search of its famous exotic culture and natural beauty. For many tourists, Bali is a paragon for the island paradise, but for locals, it is rapidly becoming far from this.
Research shows that Indonesia is the second largest plastic polluter in the world after China, and its plastic waste accounts for a 10% of the world’s marine plastic pollution – that’s a huge amount for any nation, let alone one that relies so heavily on marine tourism.
Why is the impact?
In recent years, Bali has seen growing environmental problems such as pollution and freshwater scarcity. Popular tourist beaches are frequently covered in plastic waste that washes ashore during storms.
I went there last year on a scuba diving trip and found that, while the underwater world there is beautiful, when you are snorkeling in a marine reserve and see plastic bags floating all over the place it just takes away from the joy of being there
Plastic debris is a major environmental issue. Because it is not disposed of properly, it ends up getting into rivers and oceans and kills marine life through entanglement and drowning or starvation caused by animals ingesting particles they cannot digest.
There is also an issue to human health as the emissions from burning waste have been found to be related to increased cancer rates, immune system weakening, kidney disease, birth defects, and many respiratory illnesses.
What’s being done?
Traditionally, the Balinese people used only organic materials like palm leaves when collecting or storing food, leaving behind no waste. But since plastic was introduced, the island has become covered in non-degradable waste.
In Feb. 2016 the Balinese government tried to reduce plastic use by introducing a tax on single-use plastic bags, but the Indonesian retailers association got the programme stopped by claiming a lack of legal grounds to charge for bags.
Community understanding about the hazards of poorly managed plastic waste is vitally important, and two teenage sisters are doing more than most to raise awareness.
Melati and Isabel Wijsen are sisters born and raised on the island of Bali who have been working for five years now on a campaign to say no to plastic bags. They attend Green School Bali, which is built out of bamboo and puts a huge emphasis on teaching their students to become leaders of today.
The coolest thing about the school might just be its after-school program that teaches English to local children who don’t go to the relatively expensive and private, Green School. In order to receive this free class, the children must bring a bag of recyclable waste with them.
One day, Melati and Isabel had a class about some significant leaders in history, including Mahatma Gandhi and Princess Diana. They decided that they wanted to become significant too, but didn’t want to wait until they were adults. They made a pact with each other to do something now while they are teenagers.
What the girls did
When considering what issues Bali was facing, the sisters decided that the biggest issue was plastic waste. After some researching, they quickly came to the conclusion that there is nothing good about plastic bags. They found inspiration in ‘Say No To Plastic Bags’ campaigns in places like Hawaii and Rwanda and decided that Bali needed one too.
So, in 2013, they launched the campaign Bye Bye Plastic Bags. There was no recycling program in Bali when they began their campaign, so they introduced what is currently the only recycling program in Bali, and they’re working on their second one.
The sisters discovered that only 5 percent of plastic bags get recycled in Bali, and in 2014 they obtained permission to start collecting signatures at Bali’s airport, eventually gaining over 100,000.
Sadly, Bali’s governor, Mangku Pastika, turned a blind eye to their campaign and refused to grant the sisters’ request for a hearing.
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, the girls started a hunger strike. This brought great national attention and forced the governor to pledge that by 2018, Bali would be plastic-bag free. This has not come to fruition as national governments remain hesitant to enforce the ban.
Nevertheless, the girls push forward with their crusade and have had some great successes, such as Bali’s largest ever beach cleanup, which attracted a record 12,000 volunteers in 2017, and that number was topped this year with 20,000 volunteers.
If you go to Bali today you may find the girls campaigning at local markets and festivals, or at the airport where they wait for your signature on their petition. They also give motivational speeches in other schools and hand out alternatives to plastic bags, such as net bags and recycled newspaper bags.
What can you do?
Kids like Melati and Isabel Wijsen are the future and let’s hope more follow their lead because to win the battle against plastic pollution, the Indonesian central and regional governments will have to strengthen their legal framework, which could take years.
In the meantime, here is what you can do to help…
Join One Green Planet’s campaign to crush plastic and make it easier to recycle and prevent plastic waste getting into waterways.
Sign Melati and Isabel’s Bye Bye Plastic Bags petition by going to https://www.avaaz.org/en/bye_bye_plastic_bags_on_bali/