Melati Wijsen – Changemakers: The Youth-Led Environmental Movement
Growing up near the rice fields and beaches of Bali, Melati Wijsen saw the impact of plastic waste firsthand as it littered the landscape and endangered local wildlife. She was spurred into action, and at just 12 years old, Melati and her younger sister, Isabel, founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags, with a mission to rid the world of plastic bags and empower young people to take action. Hear from Melati on the youth-led movement to build a brighter future and what this could mean for business leaders.
In this episode of Ag Future, we revisit a conversation that Dr. Mark Lyons, president and CEO of Alltech, had with Melati Wijsen, Founder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags & YOUTHTOPIA, as a part of the Alltech ONE Ideas Conference in 2020. For more information and to register for ONE 2021, visit one.alltech.com.
Dr. Lyons: Welcome to the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience. I'm Dr. Mark Lyons, President and CEO of Alltech. Founding Alltech in 1980 was just the beginning of a vision for my parents, Dr. Pearse and Mrs. Deirdre Lyons. They desired to build a business, but they also wanted to ensure that that business would have an impact on our planet far into the future. Today, our customers, partners, and more than 5000 team members around the world are working together for a planet of plenty, propelling our founding vision into a new world of possibilities. We are inspired by the challenge to produce enough safe, nutritious food for all while caring for animals and sustaining our land, air, and water for future generations. Our natural resources may be finite, but human ingenuity is infinite.
Planet of plenty is a vision of promise and positivity for the future. It's our belief that the world of abundance is achievable, but it will take all of us working together. It's a vision that must be led by science and technology, and a shared will to make a difference, to plant trees we will never see grow. In 2020, these ideas seem to be growing in importance and urgency. Our special guest today on the ONE Virtual Experience was motivated very early in life to make a difference.
Growing up near the rice fields and beaches in beautiful Bali, Indonesia, Melati Wijsen was impacted when she saw plastic firsthand as it littered the landscape and endangered local wildlife. She was spurred into action at just 12 years old. She and her younger sister, Isabel, founded Bye Bye Plastic Bags with a mission to rid the world of plastic bags starting at home in Bali and empower young people to take action. She has spoken on world stages such as TED and the United Nations. She has been honored by Time as one of the most influential teams in the world, and has also been named to CNN Heroes Young Wonders and Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
Melati graduated from high school one year early and recently founded Youthtopia, a global community that empowers youth through meaningful, short peer-to-peer programs and provides them with tools that they need to become young changemakers themselves. Melati, welcome to the Alltech ONE Virtual Experience.
Melati: Thank you so much for having me. I'm very excited to be joining you today.
Dr. Lyons: Well, you have an incredible story and I think one that will not only inspire the ONE Virtual Experience normal adult audience, but also their children, the kids and teenagers that we've invited to join us today. Could you maybe just start with telling us a little bit about what inspired you to take on this role of being a changemaker?
Melati: Yes. Well, for starters, I grew up on the island of Bali here in Indonesia. Growing up here, we had a childhood which meant playing in the environment 24/7. We were always in the rivers, running through the rice fields. That at an early age grew such a strong connection between myself, my family, and the environment around us. When we started Bye Bye Plastic Bags when I was 12 and my younger sister was 10, we had no idea what being a changemaker even was, what an activist even meant. We just saw plastic pollution being a problem, plastic pollution ending up in places that it absolutely should not, and it wasn't rocket science. We just asked a simple question. How can we get started? How can we get involved?
The rest was pretty much history. My sister and I rolled up our sleeves without a business plan, without a strategy, but the pure passion to just protect the environment in our home.
Dr. Lyons: When you specifically got things started with your sister and you decided you were going to do something, what really started that journey? What was the seed of inertia that got things moving for you?
Melati: This is a question that we get a lot of the time. One thing that I have heavily reflected on especially during this time right now is after seven years on the frontlines, what was it? What was that moment for us? It's very difficult to pinpoint one moment. To be honest, I think it was a whole collection of moments growing up on the island of Bali. Again, we were always in nature whether that was doing our first surfing lesson and really being out there in the ocean with plastic coming out after every single paddle, or learning how to plant rice for the first time and actually planting it on top of plastic. All of those sorts of moments where you may be hearing it for the first time through my story, but for me, it was my reality.
I don't know if I can give you an exact moment for me, but I definitely know that me and my sister saw this problem, and at the same time, we were very much inspired by the story that we learned at school. Think back to the time when you first learned about Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Lady Diana, all of these incredible leaders who throughout history made a difference in their community. My sister and I, after learning about them for the very first time, we thought we don't want to wait until we're older to start making a difference. We went home that day, connected the problem of plastic pollution, this motivation that this class, this lesson had for us, and combined the two and said we're going to make our island home of Bali plastic bag-free.
Dr. Lyons: That's incredible. I think one of the things that all of us think about is how would I have started that at that age? Or if I know young people at that age, what would I be thinking of what they were doing? What did your parents and maybe your community think about this when you got things going in those first stages?
Melati: My parents, first and foremost, they come from completely two different worlds. My mom is Dutch, my dad is Indonesian, totally different cultures and backgrounds, but they both found themselves on the island of Bali. When they were raising me and my sister -- also, me and my sister, a little bit of background, we were that kind of sisters that never fought. We are best friends. Even up to this day, we tell each other everything and we do everything together. We were always doing projects, not as big as Bye Bye Plastic Bags, but we were organizing the village bazaars. We were organizing how to make tree houses with our friends. We're always up to something.
So when my sister and I went up to our parents and said we're going to do this, we're going to make Bali plastic bag-free, they thought and we thought it was just going to be another summer project. But here we are seven years later and our parents have been an incredible source of support, which we're very, very lucky to have and to call our parents as one of our biggest supporters. They've also taught us a lot about balance. I'm sure we'll get closer to that throughout the entire discussion of how young changemakers and the support system around them require that sense of balance.
Dr. Lyons: Maybe we could talk a little bit about those early stages. You must have faced a lot of challenges. Maybe you could explain a little bit of what took place. How did you get things moving? How did you get some of the first signatures on your petition?
Melati: To be honest, when I think about our very first days with Bye Bye Plastic Bags, it blows my mind. It still does. I have a lot of projects that we started after Bye Bye Plastic Bags where I just want to capture that same sense of spontaneousness. I don't know if that's a word, but that level of passion that just went into creating something overnight and turning into this large movement that became much bigger than just me and my sister overnight. At first, we posted our first Facebook post and the first likes were my mom and my dad, the auntie and the uncle. Then we thought, well, what can we do from there?
Obviously, the first step was building our team, and that was often more other young people, other peers, our best friends. From then on, we started a petition. So what you were referring to, how did we get the first signatures on board, we put it up online. And within the first 24 hours, we had 6000 signatures already agreeing that Bali should be plastic bag-free. I guess this was really the first "aha" moment for us. This was where we realized that more people agreed with us. We were onto something big and the time for change was now. Since then, we've really used that momentum that we built as one of the largest youth-led movements in the country to see how we could build those conversations and turn that into action and positive impact.
Dr. Lyons: That must have been so exciting to get that level of response.
Melati: I just want to share one story, just the level of excitement to give you an idea of what that was for me and my sister at 10 and 12 years old. Every morning just before school, we'd rush to our parents' computers and log on to our online petition and reload the page. Every morning, we had thousands and thousands of more and new names that signed the petition. That was something that we did every morning for the next several weeks forward.
Dr. Lyons: That's incredible. It must have been such a rush every morning to get up and just be thinking about what the response was. Certainly, I think that message then moved even beyond Bali to international. It's extraordinary. Ultimately, you've faced some challenges. Obviously, it wasn't all smooth sailing the whole time. What did Bye Bye Plastic Bags actually achieve and what were some of the roadblocks you had to overcome to get there?
Melati: Over the last seven years of campaigning on the frontlines, we have come across many obstacles, everything from how do we keep that long-term motivation going. Being 12 years old, starting the movement all the way up to today where I'm 19, that long-term motivation, keeping people hopeful in the movement, keeping people excited about the change that is coming while it still didn't come fast enough, that was probably one of the biggest challenges. The way we overcame that honestly was just to keep the movement fun, keep the movement as creative as possible. Being a youth-led movement, that wasn't too difficult.
I think one of our biggest achievements that we have accomplished after seven years, six years on the frontlines together with the like-minded, our biggest and proudest achievement is the ban on single use plastic bags, straws, and styrofoam on the island of Bali.
Dr. Lyons: It's an incredible achievement and it's something that I think a lot of people with a lot more experience, with a lot more resources couldn't have achieved. I think everybody watching this will be watching with admiration in terms of what you and your sister and the whole movement have done.
You really touched on an interesting point there that I think every organization struggles with. You have a founding principle and everybody feels very passionate about it in the beginning, but how do you keep that energy going? You mentioned something that we find very important within our culture, fun. You've got to keep things fun. Right now, we're in a world where we're a bit separated. Obviously, social media has been a huge part of your movement. What have you learned over the last seven years in terms of social media, how to use that and how to influence others and keep that mission alive and strong?
Melati: Well, I could write a book about all the different lessons because if one thing is for sure, Bye Bye Plastic Bags was my life school. There's no other textbook that could teach me what I learned through the hands-on experience. Some of the biggest tools and learnings that I've had is really how can we collaborate more? How can we create those connections and those partnerships to create meaningful impact in our communities? I think that was one of the biggest takeaways over the last seven years and something that I really hope we can be a living example to show that collaboration. But also, youth empowerment is key if we want to see change happening.
Dr. Lyons: Absolutely. That's a lot of what you're working on now. You've moved on. You're talking about a lot of other ways to engage with young people, and you've created something very exciting and new and something I was very inspired by first learning about it when we chatted earlier, Youthtopia. What is Youthtopia about and what is it that you want to achieve with this new ambitious effort?
Melati: Yes, and thank you for letting me share a little bit more about Youthtopia. I don't know if you can tell, but my cheeks always get very hot and excited when I talk about the new project that me and my sister are working on. Think about the seven-year journey that me and my sister had. It brought us to so many extremely beautiful stages all around the world from the TED stages to the UN headquarters. My sister and I were going all over the world, but our biggest audience, no matter where we were, was always young people, other students, other like-minded, young people that were always curious about our story.
Whenever we stepped into the classroom, they sat a little bit taller, leaned on their chairs and said, "If they can do it, I can do it, too." But the question we always got after presenting and sharing our story with Bye Bye Plastic Bags was young people coming up to us and asking, "How can I do what you do?" This is where the larger passion of me and my sister really came into, which is education, specifically peer-to-peer education, and youth empowerment. How can we mobilize an entire generation of young changemakers?
That's what Youthtopia is all about. We're a community-centric platform with learning at its core and we work with real life, frontline, young changemakers. We use their experience. We pull together their knowledge and put it into a program for the rising young changemaker. We provide the education systems and the educational programs that the current traditional system doesn't have in place right now.
Dr. Lyons: Yeah. I think for a lot of us, we're going to think, okay, that sounds fantastic. How do we define youth empowerment? What can we do to make sure that youth do feel empowered? I think a lot of times, young people today feel a little bit disconnected, disheartened particularly in this moment where COVID has been such a challenge. What can we do to define that youth empowerment and make sure to support it?
Melati: This is again where my passion for education comes in, so cut me off at any moment when I talk too much about it. This is really where a huge passion of mine and a belief of mine is, that the education system needs to change. A big reason why young people all around the world feel a disconnect is because a big chunk of our day, five days a week, we spend it at school and we learn about things that are not relevant nor happening in the moment. Where when we come back home, when we turn on our phones and go through Instagram, we're seeing all of these bigger problems. This heavyweight suddenly sits on our shoulders and we want to play a more active role in the community we're living in, and we're not being provided with that.
When we talk about youth empowerment, we have to expect more from the young generation. We have to expect more and to guide more with the relevant tools, the relevant skills, and educational material our generation is asking for. I really think that youth empowerment, especially in the space that I'm in with the young people I've gotten to meet, we're empowering each other with our stories, with the other things that we're learning and sharing with each other. I think that that's really where the power of youth empowerment is.
Dr. Lyons: I think a lot of people are going to be wanting to get onto Youthtopia hearing about it when they go through this. How can other youths get involved? Is this something that is limited to Asia? Is it something that's global?
Melati: This is definitely going to be a global project and we welcome anyone that would like to join and learn how to become a young changemaker. As most startups nowadays, especially led by the Gen Z, the best source of information at the moment as we build is our Instagram page, youthtopia.world or our website, which is the same handle.
Dr. Lyons: Awesome. Let's switch gears a little bit. We're in a moment right now that is truly unprecedented. One thing that we're seeing in the lens that we have is that a lot of these mega-trends are speeding up. And things that we were speaking about before, sustainability, climate change, and it being accepted and being something that we're really going to focus on are two that we do see speeding up.
We took a great quote from Martin Luther King a few months back and said there's a fierce urgency of now and that this is a moment that we've got to grasp. How do we grasp the opportunity that is being presented to us right now in a moment of such change and really continue to move these types of things forward?
Melati: I asked myself this question a lot and I definitely don't have the answer. I think it's a learning curve that we are all experiencing. I guess the way that I would approach an answer would be to zoom out and zoom in at the same time and really personally reflect on what this time means to you. This is on a global scale. I think we're being given an opportunity, an unprecedented opportunity, not a challenge, not a risk, but this is an opportunity for us. I think young people as well, again, we often look at challenges or burdens without the heaviness, but we again look at it more as an opportunity.
I think we have to look at it as when I say zoom out, think about the timeline that we have set in place. Five years ago, the United Nations invented the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This has become a framework that is implemented or spoken about all around the world, in classrooms, in board meetings, in government halls. The 17 SDGs is a framework or acts as a framework and a guideline of 17 different goals from humanitarian issues to environmental issues that we have to reach. 2020 and this year, we have hit the ten-year mark to reach those goals or not. I think with everything going on, we're being given an opportunity to reflect and refocus, restructure, reinvent the time that we're living in because we know already way longer before the 17 SDGs were invented, we know that the current system no longer works to our favor or to our benefit. And if we do not change business as usual, we're headed to an unlivable future.
The opportunity that is right in front of us, where and how we grasp it is by first and foremost becoming face to face. Once we do the whole zoom out, come up close. Embrace the confrontation that is happening right now on a global scale and on a personal scale, and understand what side you want to be on: the part that makes the future worth living or the history that doesn't move us forward. I think this is where we as individuals have a huge role to play in creating the movement forward.
Dr. Lyons: Yeah, I think it's really that moment. It is a gut check moment in a way to really say where are we going and how are we going to change the trajectory if we don't like that place that we're going to end up. For a lot of the audience, and I'm thinking particularly even within our core business, the word 'activist' often strikes a tone of fear. People are thinking, "What is this person doing?" Of course, we know one of the big challenges that we have as humans is sometimes not embracing change, which is certainly something we need to be doing right now. How do we help people to overcome that fear and actually see that opportunity that you're highlighting for change?
Melati: I love this. I love that the word 'activist' already makes people a little bit uncomfortable. That's good because that's when we know we're doing our job right. The role of an activist, especially young activists, is that we don't have that level of diplomacy. We know we do not have the time for chitchat and how's the weather. We get down to business. We know what we want. We're determined. Activists, especially in the recent couple of months, couple of years back, especially with the youth movement on the rise, we make people uncomfortable. The goal is to make us as uncomfortable as possible so we know we have to change. It's about applying the right kind of pressure.
Notice the reason why I don't mention the word 'fear' is because I think that that's not necessarily where the movement even comes from. The movement comes from a place of passion, of authenticity, and of love. I think that's why older generations or people that are afraid of change, they come up from a place of fear. They come up from a place of not willing to change because they're stuck in their comfort zone. Again, that's where we come in to make you as uncomfortable as possible so that we can change and move things along.
Dr. Lyons: Yeah. We like to say that the magic in life starts at the edge of your comfort zone, so I think that's absolutely what we need to be doing and provoking in certain regards. Fear is one of the most useless emotions I think we have. I'm thinking about people watching this and saying, like you've said, "I'm a young person. I want to get involved." But a lot of people do feel intimidated or uncertain about themselves. How did you have the confidence in yourself to say, "Yes, we can go and get this done" and what would you suggest for young people if they were wanting to embark on such a mission themselves?
Melati: I think that there are a lot of reasons why you are feeling this way and rightly so. Don't feel like it's not normal. There are definitely moments even where I find myself feeling super overwhelmed because when we look at the problem that the world is currently facing, we can feel very small and very -- well, just simply asking the question, where can we start? Where do I start? And how do I start? I think one piece of advice or one learning that I've had through my own experience is if you find just your piece of the puzzle, where can you add your strength, your power, your authenticity? Fuel it with your own passion. For you, it might not be plastic bags. For me, that was something that opened a whole opportunity and started me on this journey. It might be feeding the homeless, fighting for the forest and the rights of the trees.
Find your own passion and what is happening in your local area. I think once you find something that you deeply connect with, intimidation and the butterflies in your stomach is a healthy and good way to keep you on this path, to keep you moving forward because you also have to understand that it's bigger than you. It's bigger than one person. For me, this was the biggest lesson that I still cherish and carry with me to this day. We're a part of something bigger. There's a bigger message here, and young people are here to play a role in a bigger picture.
Dr. Lyons: Fantastic and very inspiring. There are going to be other people watching this and they're going to be thinking, gosh, this young lady, very inspiring, very impressive, has spent a third of her life now focused in this area, but I'm a little later in life. How do I become a changemaker as well or how do I help to mentor changemakers? What would be your message perhaps to the audience a little bit older?
Melati: Well, first of all, you're probably in a position of power, so I hope that you are using it to the potential of creating a world and a future that we are proud of, that is legal, that is just, and that is fair. I think that as a company owner, an industry leader, a government representative, being an adult, there's so much that you could do for good. When we talk about empowering young people and bringing us and inviting us into the space, that is one thing that we need more of. We need to be invited more often to conferences, to sit on panel discussions, and when we're not on stage, to be in the room.
Too many times, I'm finding myself in these beautiful, incredible, wealthy, knowledgeable conference rooms, and I ask the question, how many of you here are below the age of 30? Not because I want to see how many old people there are, but just because I want to make a point of how many or too little young people are in the audience. This for me, you have so much power as adults to invite us into those spaces. That's one of the ways that I think that you can empower and foster us into the realm of changemaking as well.
Dr. Lyons: Yeah, I really like that idea. I recently was introduced to a book called "The Good Ancestor" and it was basically talking about future generations, generations that aren't even with us. Somehow, we need to also be thinking about them and bringing their voice into the room. I think that type of concept of getting more listening sessions and engagement with youth and what's really important on their agenda is a great suggestion and something we should be thinking about.
I might just think a little bit back on plastics. Plastics had been a big, big focus. That was the initial core issue that you guys identified and moved ahead with. Plastic is really part of a larger problem, which is a huge reliance on fossil fuels, which has been the dominant driver of climate change.
Do you have any thoughts about how we can use that focus and that success you've had with plastic to maybe put a light on the bigger issue of overuse of fossil fuels?
Melati: Well, if we think about it -- and it touches on a way bigger point and I like that we're headed into there. When we think about problems or issues or challenges, we often box them or label them as if they're separate. Plastic pollution is connected and intertwined to climate change. Climate change is intertwined to gender inequality, to poverty. We have to start understanding that there is a global interconnectedness to all of these issues.
Think about the Black Lives Matter movement. There is no racial justice without climate justice. There is no climate justice without racial justice. Just before diving into that, of the plastic pollution, I just wanted to paint the picture of just how the narrative needs to change that everything is interconnected. Plastic bags, for example, the very thing that it's made of is from the fossil fuels that we need to keep in the ground. The reason, without even knowing it when we started, plastic pollution or going up against plastic pollution, it's a low hanging fruit. It is something where people are ready for as individuals, consumers, businesses even, government even. We're all towards a willingness and an intention to see how we can find alternatives.
When we started, for example, Bali banned plastic bags. That opened an entire discussion of okay, now what? What is the long-term solution? How can we look more into other types of alternatives not only for plastic bags, but for other plastic products for the entire waste management system? I think using the fact of the discussions on plastic pollution as a leverage to climate change and the climate crisis is a good way to go and a good start to open the larger discussion.
Dr. Lyons: I think it really touches on the actual opportunity. Maybe you have a plastic ban in one location, but it creates commercial opportunities. You are getting an opportunity now to engage with business, to engage with policymakers. Have you been able to see or identify anything within companies that's maybe restricting them to see the opportunity that some of these changes and perhaps aligning with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals could actually create for them?
Melati: Yeah. I'm not sure if I'm answering your question 100%, so please correct me or guide me in the right direction. But from what I get and where I think I would like to answer is that right now, what I'm coming on to when I'm in board meetings or when I'm with a government meeting, I constantly hear the excuse that people are not ready or even business leaders themselves are not ready for the change. But when I dig a little bit deeper, I'm like, why are we not changing fast enough? Is it a budget issue? Not really. Is it a consumer issue? I may live in a bubble, but I don't think so. I think the demand is there.
What it comes down to is definitely what you're touching on, is that systemic support is not there. I feel like the government regulations are not changing or adapting nor supporting the level and the speed of change. So business leaders can hide behind that and have no consequences or need to change their behavior. I think it's a little bit frustrating because when we talk about the elephant in the room, that's the elephant in the room. We're having too much gray area. People are hiding behind the willingness only and the inspiration only without actually implementing or changing the regulations, the policy frameworks to be able to actually implement that change.
Dr. Lyons: We've been touching on a lot of different topics and I like the way that you phrased that the Sustainable Development Goals give us a framework. For us and for me personally, I feel like one of the most important of the Sustainable Development Goals is the last one focused on partnerships, and you've already mentioned collaboration. How do you think that policymakers, youth activists, and even companies can come together in partnerships to bring about the change that we need?
Melati: I couldn't agree more. There is a very strong need and urgency for more partnerships, more authentic partnerships to take place.
To touch on it a little bit as well, I think when we look at partnerships, especially between young people and businesses, government sectors or departments, it's often viewed upon as an annual CSR program or a charity event where it's a one-off partnership. I think moving into 2020, learning everything that's happening around the world right now, we have to understand that when we talk about partnerships, it has to be more long-term. It has to be sustainable.
The way that authentic partnerships can take place is if there's a true transparency and communication. What I mean by that is take for example when a big corporation sets a goal or even a government sets a goal and a massive commitment. We love viral articles and viral videos and headlines, but we need more than that. In order to have a real working partnership, transparency and communication in the progress of achieving that commitment is necessary for us to be able to commit fully and to be able to contribute back into the partnership in a meaningful way. I think that that's what young people are really looking for, just to have a seat on the table and be taken seriously at the same time.
Dr. Lyons: This is a time of challenge. It's a time of separation. You guys have had to deal with that and modify what you're doing. Maybe a two-part question, the first, how have you adapted your program through COVID and kept that engagement? Then maybe I'd ask, you're an optimistic person and I think that's one of the things that makes what you're doing very attractive and something that people want to be part of. What makes you optimistic for the future?
Melati: Okay. The first question, with Bye Bye Plastic Bags, we were definitely more hands-on. You could find us at a bazaar, at an event, at a conference. We're doing three to five events a week. As a youth led movement, that was a lot for us to be doing. When COVID-19 happened, we had to switch everything online. We kept it as interactive as possible with our followers and continued our educational outreach there.
But with Youthtopia, we use this momentum and this growth in online learning to our advantage because Youthtopia's signature programs live online. That, for us, has been a real boost and actually worked to our advantage where we now host a lot of webinars, and again, interactive peer-to-peer panel discussions. We've had a lot of traction continue forward there also simply because we see that kids, young people all around the world, especially now, what is being amplified is the question of how can I create positive change? Our goal with Youthtopia is really to become that go-to headquarters for young changemakers all around the world.
What keeps me hopeful is exactly that, I would say, seeing young people from all around the world, all corners, no matter what background, no matter what culture, them coming up with the craziest and coolest and just so simple solutions. Being so determined no matter how often they're met with barriers and challenges. Their persistence, that's what inspires me. I feel like this sense of global community that we have as young changemakers has really been, again, amplified throughout this COVID-19. I think it's really brought us closer together as a global community, so I'm grateful for that, but it's also what fuels me every single day.
Dr. Lyons: Yeah. It is one of the paradoxes of this time. Somehow we are physically separated, but somehow socially we're actually coming together, so it's great to see that you're experiencing that as well. Well, Melati, this has been fantastic. It's been really exciting to talk to you. I think it's been inspiring for me personally. I think for the audience, they will feel exactly the same, so thank you for being with us and sharing your story.
Melati: Thank you very much.