That Time We Met Up With Dozens of Changemakers in Bali

Our Journey to Break Free From Plastic

Last week, changemakers from over 20 countries converged in Legian, Bali, Indonesia to strategize on the projects aimed at curbing the plastic tide covering our streets and killing our oceans. The Story of Stuff Project has been a key organization in bringing the group together, recognizing that we can achieve so much more as a global team than we ever could as U.S.-based team.

Indeed, the plastic pollution we continue to witness in countries in southeast Asia is largely imported by corporations based in the U.S. and Europe. Often, these smaller, developing countries are incorrectly blamed for big contributions to the plastic pollution problem. What’s clear is that selling single-use plastic Stuff in Indonesia is very different than selling it in the U.S. Indonesia doesn’t ‘lack infrastructure;’ it lacks the kind of infrastructure that is common in the U.S. The point here is that no two cultures and economies in the world are the same, and as plastic pollution activism gains strength in the global north, where many policy successes have banned cheap, no-value plastic products, the companies that make them are rushing to open markets in developing countries to balance their profit margins. So without a global watchdog movement based on inclusivity and intersectionality, we can’t get much done on this urgent issue.

For our part, we are humbled and honored to have been in the presence of such experts from southeast Asia and beyond. Typical ‘solution-based’ strategies involved corporate-funded NGOs coming to developing countries and telling them what to do without ever actually doing something very basic—listening. For instance, there are initiatives at play on the global stage to curb plastic leaking into the ocean that cost between $300 million and a billion dollars to build, all on the backs of the very citizens of these countries where global north companies act like predators. For companies like Dow, Exxon, Unilever, and Nestlé, the plastic pollution problem is an optics problem, not something they are seriously trying to fix.

In the Philippines, there is a zero-waste model scaling and deploying that can’t seem to get traction amongst global north powers because ‘they didn’t think of it.’ Mother Earth Foundation based in Manila has a scaleable model that can stop nearly all plastic from escaping into the ocean with an investment of 20 million dollars. It’s a fraction of the price, it’s people-powered, and it costs about 85% less than what the government here is spending now. So why aren’t decision-makers in Washington D.C. and Brussels rushing to implement it? Because the companies that make low-value plastics don’t want to limit their growth or redesign plastic packaging, nor do they want to see citizen muscle in charge of managing waste. They lose power when the people rise. Luckily, there is a growing movement to ensure that best practices are brought to power circles in the global north via the solutions-oriented knowledge of experts in the global south. In short, these companies can’t hide behind geography anymore because an integrated, multi-national group of changemakers is sharing knowledge at the global level.

Things are changing, globally. We’re running out space to bury our waste. Meanwhile, burning plastic waste literally kills people who live next to incinerator plants; this dirty practice is often euphemistically called ‘waste to energy.’ Even China, which in the past has accepted up to 80% of the world’s plastic, announced last week that they will no longer take the world’s garbage. What does that mean? It means that when you put Stuff in your recycling bin, 80% of what you think is being recycled isn’t. The companies that collect plastic make their money from collecting it, not recycling it. In the U.S., our story is one of collection, not recycling.

In the coming weeks, The Story of Stuff Project will be traveling throughout Asia meeting with many of these changemakers as we begin to work on our biggest storytelling initiative yet: The Story of Plastic. As we go, you’ll meet the face of this movement—real people facing tremendous odds to create change in their communities. The work of these changemakers will send ripples through the whole convenience-industrial-complex that is plaguing the world.

Next time you think about how hard it might be to ban plastic bags in your town, think of Break Free From Plastic changemaker Shahriar Hossein, an activist from Bangladesh who passed the first plastic bag ban in the world.

In order to win, Shahriar had to endure exile from his country for seven years and survive two assassination attempts…all the while sacrificing his right to watch his children grow up. This is the level of activism we see among the groups in the global south fighting Big Plastic. We are partnering with them to tell their stories. In the coming months, you will meet so many of these extraordinary changemakers. It’s our hope with this project that our Community will add fuel to the fire of this movement and spread these stories of victory in the face of institutional resistance.

We have to change the system. The Break Free From Plastic movement is poised and aimed to do just that. We are one voice, one people, on one earth.

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