The world has a big problem with plastic waste — and women are working hard to clean up our act.
About 220 million tons of the versatile but non-biodegradable material are produced globally each year, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). That plastic is used in everything from the computers we work on and the clothing we wear to the containers we use to store our food.
Unfortunately, too much of this plastic is being disposed of improperly, hurting people and the planet in trackable, lasting ways. In particular, plastic bags, packaging and other litter are wreaking havoc on marine life. At least 267 species are suffering harm from plastic waste, often because they ingest it or become entangled in trash, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says. UNESCO adds that plastic debris is responsible for the deaths more than 1 million seabirds annually, as well as more than 100,000 marine mammals.
In addition to harming wildlife and cluttering beaches around the globe — sometimes to horrifying effect — plastic also plays a large part in phenomena like the Great Pacific garbage patch, the largest of several ocean vortexes choked with man-made waste. In all, more than 5 trillion pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans, a comprehensive worldwide study found.
Throughout the world, women are responding to the crisis with a mix of grassroots nonprofit efforts and businesses that deliver eco-friendly alternatives to plastic goods.
As a part of our Good on the Ground series profiling women addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways, we will soon be releasing a video featuring Chance Claxton of U Konserve, who makes reusable glass and metal food-storage products as alternatives to single-use plastic containers.
For today’s story, we spoke with three other women who are using outreach and entrepreneurship to tackle our shared plastic problem. Living in Australia, the United States and Indonesia, by specifically targeting plastic bag and baggie use, they hope to raise awareness about how wasteful habits hurt us all and spark change.
Teens Working for Future Free of Plastic
Melati and Isabel Wijsen are the teenage forces of nature behind Bye Bye Plastic Bags, a nonprofit organization in Bali, Indonesia, that encourages kids and teens to get active in combating the island’s significant plastic and pollution problem. It’s a local effort that’s reach went global in 2015 when the sisters gave a joint TED Talk about their campaign to ban plastic bag use.
Since then, the organization has become something of a media darling, and the girls have used their elevated profile to organize large-scale clean-up efforts across Bali.
Melati Wijsen says it all began with a lesson on ecology at school in 2012 that “really inspired us to say, okay, what can we do? We didn’t want to wait until we were older to do something.”
That same day, they put their heads together and came up with the idea to start a kid-run nonprofit focused on raising awareness about the harmful effects plastic has on life both at sea and on land. Melati was 12 years old and Isabel was only 10 when they began the initiative, and they were quickly joined by about six close friends.
As its managers have matured, so too has Bye Bye Plastic Bags. It now has 25 committed team members scattered around the island, as well as an executive board that handles event coordination. The kids’ weekends are often occupied by hands-on activities, such as distributing plastic-bag alternatives to shoppers exiting local malls or rewarding shops and restaurants that shun plastic with stickers and social media posts.
Bye Bye Plastic Bags has also held massive beach clean-ups. One such event, held earlier this year, involved more than 12,000 people stationed at 55 different points along Bali’s coastline. Melati Wijsen says more than 40 tons of trash were collected that day alone. “It really showed that people are ready for change.”
The organization is now working with government officials to eradicate plastic bag use from Bali by 2018, an effort that is a top priority for the girls. “It’s been one of our challenges as a youth-driven initiative: How do we work with them? And how do we understand how they work, so we can really influence change?”
Melati Wijsen says the key has been spotlighting how the garbage problem undermines tourism, an important industry for Bali and Indonesia as a whole. “The government knows plastic is hurting it. There’s motivation for them to really jump on this.”
She and her sister, now 16 and 14, are making a difference. “As kids are realizing our voices are a power we have, people are starting to listen,” she says. “We became a living example to kids around the world that we can do things — of the power we have.”
Taking Advantage of Buzz Around Her Biz
Sarah Kaeck’s Vermont-based business, Bee’s Wrap, has been enjoying a growth spurt ever since a viral Buzzfeed video led to a deluge of new customers.
“We’ve had to ramp up production and bring in a bunch of new people. We’ve been working to get our feet under us,” she says. They are quickly selling out of the wax-coated cloth wraps, which come in a variety of fun patterns and bright colors. “But it’s been fun and exciting as well.”
It’s a big step for the venture, which launched just 4 and a half years ago. At that time, Kaeck was a stay-at-home mother who worked as a freelance email marketer. Living sustainably — a priority for her — was also taking up a significant portion of her time, especially since she grows her own food and raises a variety of animals.
That philosophy has carried over into making, and then selling, the wraps. She uses organic, ethically sourced materials like custom-woven fabric from India, tree resin from Indonesia, and jojoba oil and beeswax from the United States.
“I have strived to live a sustainable lifestyle since having children,” she says. Avoiding plastic is tough with kids, she adds, but thinking about the effects of plastic use on ocean life and drinking water locally and globally keeps her pressing onward.
The constant exposure to plastic Americans now experience also worries Kaeck, who says her wraps are “one small way to eliminate plastic use — to take plastic baggies and wrap out of our lives by using something that is all-natural, healthy and biodegradable.”
It’s been an increasingly profitable idea, too. Since starting up in 2012, she says annual revenues have doubled each year, though she declined to disclose specific figures. Bee’s Wrap currently has 11 full-time and 7 part-time employees.
Media coverage has helped spur that growth. And fortunately, Kaeck had a growth plan at the ready when the most recent influx of customers came her way. “We were planning to ramp up production for quite some time now. We just expected it to happen more organically. But we were not caught completely off guard.”
Kaeck is looking to move Bee’s Wrap into larger facilities to accommodate increased demand. She plans to add more print options in 2018 and to roll out a marketing plan targeting people who enjoy outdoor sports like hiking and camping. The company is also partnering with Vermont organizations that teach kids about the importance of maintaining a healthy bee population, in an expansion of its environmental message.
Sustainability Options from Down Under
Though half a world away, Elishah and Shuaib Rahman are pursuing much the same approach as Kaeck to reducing kitchen plastic. The cofounders of Australian company Eco Food Wrap also extol the virtues of the simple life they lead and offer reusable cloth wraps as an effective, low-impact method of food storage.
Elishah Rahman sits atop the company, serving as its “brains” and the driving force behind the creation and distribution of each wrap. Shuaib Rahman, who founded Eco Food Wrap with his wife, handles the operations side of things.
About 5 years ago, the couple “moved from an inner city townhouse to a half an acre property that’s completely off-the-grid,” with solar power and rainwater playing large roles in running their home, Shuaib Rahman says. That change led to a larger mindshift. “When you’re turning the tap without consideration for how much of a resource you have, it’s different than when your resources are limited,” he says. “The more we started doing for ourselves, the more we wanted to do for ourselves.”
The couple began tending ducks and bees, while searching for other ways to minimize their impacts on the world around them. Elishah Rahman says they soon turned to their plastic supplies. “Having children, we realized how toxic it was for the environment, and we started thinking about changing their future.”
Inspired, she began making non-plastic wraps for her family’s leftovers — and then made more for her friends. “More people kept asking. They were really interested, and we saw a need. It kept on growing from there.”
The principles that inform the Rahman’s sustainable lifestyle also inform the mechanics of their business. Solar power runs the operation, and the fabrics used are fair trade, organic and colored with low-impact dyes. The wraps are treated with locally sourced beeswax and jojoba oils.
It’s good for their home — both the small, sustainable one they maintain and their larger homeland. A worldwide study found that, though Australia is not among the worst plastic polluters in the world, it does add 13,888 tons of plastic litter to the global total, a quarter of which makes its way into nearby waters. Some 77 species of marine animals are harmed by such waste each year, according to a report issued by the Australian government.
The business is currently a part-time one. The couple’s two children — a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl — “occupy most of our days, so most of the work is done at night, between 10 p.m. and 12 midnight, or 2 a.m.,” Shuaib Rahman says. But with the help of a rotating volunteer team of loved ones, they are able to meet the demand from local farmers-market customers, online shoppers and wholesale distributors, the latter of which makes up between 15 to 20 percent of their business.
In all, the company sells about 30,000 wraps per year, pulling in $4,500 per week and growing. “It’s wonderful, seeing people become more aware of our market impact,” Elishah Rahman says.