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After fighting plastic, sisters take on climate change

BALI By Richard C. Paddock, © The New York Times Co., The Denver Post eEdition, July 5, 2020

SEMINYAK, INDONESIA» It was trash season on Bali, the time of year when monsoon storms wash up tons of plastic debris onto the island’s beaches. It was also the time for two teenage sisters, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, to organize their annual island cleanup. Standing on the back of a flatbed truck, megaphones in hand, they kicked off a day of trash collecting at 115 sites around the island. Thousands of people went to help. “Not only the beaches, we clean up the rivers, we clean up the streets,” Melati Wijsen called out on that February day to a morning crowd of hundreds of volunteers, many wearing shirts with the logos of local restaurants and hotels. “This movement is for everyone in Bali.”

Melati was 12 and Isabel was 10 when they began a drive to ban plastic bags, at one point threatening a hunger strike to get the Bali governor’s attention. Now, seven years later, they have become local heroes and won international acclaim for their campaign, which resulted in Bali banning plastic bags and other such items that are intended for a single use. The sisters, now 19 and 17, are part of a young generation of global activists, including 17-year-old Swedish climate-change advocate, Greta Thunberg, calling for urgent action to protect the planet. “Kids may be only 25% of the world’s population, but we are 100% of the future,” Isabel likes to say.

In 2013 the sisters, inspired by a lesson about the lives of Nelson Mandela and Mohandas K. Gandhi, did some research and found that Indonesia was the world’s second-largest source of marine plastic pollution, after China. They also discovered that dozens of jurisdictions around the world had banned single-use plastic. They decided to start their own campaign. Since the sisters have traveled around the world to speak at major events. At 15 and 13, they gave a TED Talk in London on Bali’s trash crisis. Time magazine listed them among the Most Influential Teens and CNN applauded them as Young Wonders.

Melati describes herself as a “change maker” and has been more visible in recent months, while Isabel has focused on finishing high school and taking care of her health after discovering that she has an autoimmune disorder. In January, Melati appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she spoke passionately about the need to pressure companies and governments to ban single-use plastic.  Now, the sisters are wrestling with a problem they could not have foreseen: how to be activists during a time of pandemic and social isolation.

Shelter-at-home rules have increased the use of plastic both in packaging for delivered items and in protective gear for health care workers, dealing a “major setback” to the anti-plastic movement, Melati said. But she also welcomes the unintended benefits of widespread lockdowns in reducing pollution and allowing wildlife to return to some urban areas. Climate change, Melati said, should prompt officials to take similar, urgent action. “This is a virus that impacts us directly right now, but climate change will do the exact same thing,” she said. “One of the biggest things we have seen from the coronavirus is that government can act quickly. My question is: Why is that not the case when it comes to climate change?”



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