THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Seventeen-year-old Isabel Wijsen would describe herself as an “outgoing girl who’s into dancing, reading and cooking for her family at night.” To the outside world, however, Isabel is an activist and the co-founder of ‘Bye Bye Plastic Bags’ (BBPB), a movement that says ‘no’ to plastic bags, spread over 29 countries.
Hailing from Bali, Isabel and her sister Melati founded the same when they were 10 and 12 years old, respectively. Almost seven years into the campaign, their battle against plastic pollution turned victorious when plastic-based materials were banned in Bali last June. For their efforts, they were featured on Instagram as part of its ‘20 people to watch out in 2020’.
With Kerala’s ban on single-use plastic effective from January 1, Isabel’s visit couldn’t be more timely. She is in the state for the two-day National Climate Change Conference 2020 at Cusat, Kochi, organised by Thiruvananthapuram-based initiative ‘Bring Back Green’ on January 17, in which key speakers include ecologist Madhav Gadgil and conservationist Rajendra Singh.
The sisters had their ‘aha’ moment after a class on inspiring leaders. “Having being born and raised in Bali, a 100metres away from the beach, nature was a huge part of our upbringing. Plastic, largely, harmed our environment. It was on the beachside and the rice paddy fields. Seeing it build-up, we asked ourselves a question. Who is going to do something about this? Often we forget that we can be that somebody and after that lesson in class, we thought ‘why must we wait until we’re older?’,” says Isabel. They delved right into it. Two years into their campaign, they had an INK Talk in Mumbai. Upon a visit to Mahatma Gandhi’s house, they were motivated by his non-violence practices. The sisters decided to go on a hunger strike from dawn to dusk so that they could reach out to the government. The successful strike saw them meet the governor on the second day.
“We created a solid relationship with the government where we now have clear communication and willingness to work together. Because after years of campaigning, you realise that to create real change you have to work together with stakeholders, organisations, activists, schools and private sectors. As we were young, they could see that our intention was genuine and not profit-driven,” she says.
Governments need to prioritise the availability of alternatives before a ban is enforced, as per Isabel. “Back in time, our countries used newspapers and banana-leaves as wrappers. Sometimes it’s not just about looking forward to alternatives but it’s also about returning to our roots. Reusable alternatives are the way; ‘cause you need to create a new alternative in such a manner that 10 years down the lane, you shouldn’t worry about the same being dumped everywhere,” she explains.
At a time when the youth are increasingly taking over charge and questioning leaders in power about the depleting resources on the planet, Isabel and Melati’s efforts have extended beyond environmental concerns. They want to harness the power of the youth through their upcoming project ‘Youthtopia’.