TikTok stars clean up: the influencers saving Indonesia’s polluted rivers and beaches | Indonesia

They started as flood victims, now they are touted as local heroes for cleaning up the rivers and beaches of Indonesia’s third largest city Bandung in West Java, amassing over 9 million followers on TikTok and Instagram in the process and influencing others across the country to join the fight against pollution.

The Pandawara group is five men in their early twenties and was formed in 2022 after flooding caused by rivers clogged with rubbish damaged their homes. They take their name from the five Pandava princes of Indian folklore and the word wara, which translates to the five bearers of good news.

On TikTok, their profile – @pandawaragroup – contains over 100 short videos of their river and beach clean ups, earning them millions of views and totalling over 100 million likes.

“We have a team of river hunters who identifies rivers with urgent trash issues, where flooding can happen after rainfall,” Pandawara member Gilang Rahma told the Guardian.

Volunteers in the Bandung dam clean up take photos with Indonesian TikTok group Pandawara (in black). Photograph: The Guardian

The Greater Bandung area where they live produces 2,000 tons of waste each day, 10 to 20% of which doesn’t make it to landfill and often ends up in rivers. The vast mountain of waste produced in the region has exceeded landfill capacity by 800%, according to West Java official Prima Mayaningtyas.

The issue mirrors that facing the wider country; in a sample of 280 Indonesian cities and districts, 33 million tons of waste was produced in 2022, 36% of which did not end up in landfill. Most of the country’s food and plastic waste landfills are overcrowded.

Pandawara began modestly in 2022, cleaning up rivers around their neighbourhood, protected by rubber hand gloves and boots.

The Bandung dam, cleared from waste after three hours of clean up by 600 people.
The Bandung dam, cleared from waste after three hours of clean up by 600 people. Photograph: Ardila Syakriah/The Guardian

As they became full-time online celebrities-slash-activists, they were invited to meet government officials and receive partnership deals. As their popularity grew, so did their cleanups, which spread to other islands in Indonesia. TikTok went as far as to deem some videos as sensitive content because the sight of decaying rubbish might be considered disturbing by some viewers.

On 10 July, the group cleaned up 300 tons of waste from a beach in Lampung on Sumatra island, where 3,000 people turned up to help following Pandawara’s call for volunteers. The waste they collect was then transported to landfills.

“Sometimes when we call for volunteers, thousands would sign up but we could only select dozens due to limited space. At other times we don’t limit the number. These are for when we can’t clean up by ourselves,” Gilang said, adding that the group hoped to use the social media platform to raise gen Z’s awareness of pollution.

Pandawara’s latest call saw 600 people, including local government staff and officials, join the clean up of 17 tons of waste from the Bugel dam in Bandung regency, which is connected to West Java’s longest river, on 27 July.

Pandawara follower Resti Khairunnisa (22) volunteers and collects plastic waste from the Bandung dam.
Pandawara follower Resti Khairunnisa (22) volunteers and collects plastic waste from the Bandung dam. Photograph: The Guardian

One of them was 22-year-old Resti Khairunnisa, who went straight to volunteering after finishing a night shift. Resti, who lives nearby the dam, said she had been inspired by Pandawara’s videos and would not hesitate to jump in even with limited protective gear.

“I haven’t slept at all. I’ve been concerned about waste pollution, but this is my first time taking action,” she said after three hours of cleaning up, her sandals fully covered by mud.

Another volunteer, 21-year-old university student Imam Ahmad Fadhil, himself a victim of floods, said he had been following Pandawara since before they became famous and lauded the group’s consistency. But he maintained that community-based initiatives were not enough.

“Some people know littering is wrong, but there is no waste facility in their village, nor do they have the tools to transport the waste, so they are left with no other options,” he said.

West Java official Prima Mayaningtyas acknowledged the need to improve waste management and people’s behaviours amid growing waste volumes, as the government looks to complete the construction of its estimated Rp4 trillion ($265m) waste to energy plants by 2030.

“I saw quite a lot of young people and hopefully it made them realise that the environment is our shared responsibility,” she said.