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Blue Water Heroes Award Winner: Melati Riyanto Wijsen

Blue Water Heroes Award Winner: Melati Riyanto Wijsen

Mar 1, 2023

It was the evening of 4 November 2022, one of the four nights of ONE°15 Marina Sentosa Cove’s inaugural event on marine conservation.

A young 21-year-old was awarded the first place in Blue Water Heroes Awards 2022. Melati Riyanto Wijsen, co-founder of Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) was selected for her dedicated work in ridding Bali of single-use plastic and role in advancing the conversation thereof on marine conservation through education. Clad in a chic white shorts suit, Melati exuded humility in her acceptance speech, but her determination and one-mindedness to empower youth was unmistakeable.

It’s the same vibe she exudes as I sit down to chat with her—she is cheerful, personable and communicates with a confidence that is beyond her age.

“We are almost headed into our 10-year anniversary,” she says excitedly. “It is pretty insane to think we’ve been at it for a decade.”



Melati co-founded BBPB with her sister Isabel in 2013. She was then 12 years old and Isabel two years her junior.

Growing up in the island of Bali, the belief system of which is centered around living harmoniously with God, nature and people was the perfect gateway into a life of sustainability. However, it was sadly corrupted by the curse of modern society—single-use plastic.

It was everywhere, says Melati. “It really didn’t matter what occasion or what event we were at, whether it was a weekend with friends at the beach, learning how to surf or going for walks with our dog through the rice fields, there was always a pile of plastic. At one point, my sister and I just looked at each other and said ‘what are we going to do about it?’”

The siblings launched BBPB with no business plan or strategy but just a single-minded goal. They rallied their friends and did all they could to attract the attention of the authorities—from a fashion runway showcasing clothes made of plastic trash, to raising awareness among local villagers, to straightforward campaigning against plastic.

The authorities found their spirit endearing. “Being children I think has been our superpower; our age was our super weapon that turned the heads of people in any room we walked into. We got the attention and inspired people,” says Melati. “The challenge, however, was being taken seriously.”

Their relentlessness paid off and today, single-use plastic is banned in Bali. Execution may still be a work in progress, but Melati remains positive and has it tagged in her five-year-goal list. Add to that, BBPB escalated from being a youth-led movement to something that everyone on the island wanted to stand behind—their secret weapon as it turned out was also bringing attention to the issue at the right time, adds Melati. BBPB today has 60 volunteer-led teams around the world.


Melati puts a lot of her verve and drive to her upbringing. “Because my parents came from two totally different cultures—her father is Indonesian and mother is Dutch—there was also that benefit of them creating a special world for me and my sister and a culture of our family on our own.”

This extended right from their early schooling at Green School to never brushing aside any of their ideas and aspirations, no matter how childish or impractical they were. Instead, “they would always look at us straight-faced and serious and say: ‘That’s great. What’s
your action plan? What are you going to do about it?’”

With BBPB picking up speed very quickly, the siblings were travelling to international conferences— as attendees, keynote speakers, co-chairs and more. In 2020, Melati was invited to speak at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Their mother, Elvira Wijsen, chose to give up her real estate business to be their chaperone, and remains a full-time volunteer with the organisation.


For Melati, the stage had been set—she wanted to be a changemaker, full-time. Working out an intense time-management schedule, juggling school with conference schedules, she fast-tracked her way through high school and graduated a year early.

It was doable because Melati’s priorities were clear. “I really wanted to focus on learning as much as possible, but ironically, I didn’t feel like I did that when I was at school. I wanted to do that in the conference halls with scientists that I was sitting in front of and the young people I was meeting. This is where I thrive the most,” she says.

Sure enough, BBPB works closely with schools on creating awareness and urging sustainability focusin curriculums. It even set up an incentive-based programme called English for Trash, that clubs volunteerism with conversational English education.

As someone who didn’t have a precedent to base her strategy on when she started out, it is very important to Melati to have a support system that can help young, aspiring changemakers and guide them in their conservation journey. Youthtopia, which she founded in 2020, responds to the eternal question on young minds on how they can be a Melati themselves.

“Young Indonesians are now super switched-on and understand the problem. The students we used to campaign with, now have a solid understanding of what is going on,” says Melati, proud that the team is now fully locally led. “I think it’s really because of the access to the education and the inspiration that the movement has provided for them.”

That quest to learn and share knowledge continued in her on-screen debut with French scriptwriter Flor Vasseur’s Bigger Than Us—which was released in 2021—which sees Melati going on a journey around the world meeting young changemakers such as herself. “I learnt about the refugee crisis, agriculture, freedom of speech and many other ongoing challenges faced around the world, as well as how young people are leading the way with solutions. It was as if my plastic bubble burst,” she laughs.


One wonders if there’s another side to this influential changemaker, given that she never got to be a regular tween, teenager or the young adult that she now is.

“I think that’s something I learnt very quickly, that, in order to build a movement and push it out to be as big as BBPB did, it had to come from the most authentic place ever. As a 12-year-old, that was easy to tap into because it was not intention-driven by greed, political gain, pride or ego,” says Melati. She remains that person—whether she is in a conference, on-stage at the United Nations, or at a sleepover with Isabel and friends.

Today, she knows that she is not alone in her quest and she hopes to similarly empower youth by creating opportunities. “I want every young person to be able to see themselves in my story.”