Indonesia’s Election By-product: Trash

Along with what’s expected to be an intense campaign between President Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia is inevitably going to get something else – a massive amount of trash in a country that already is one of the world’s most formidable producers of matter indigestible by the waste disposal system.

Arguably more than any other country, certainly in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, relatively new to democracy, has a tradition of delivering humungous amounts of political campaign material on paper, which nobody bothers to clean up when the campaigns are over.

In 2014 legislative elections in Purwakarta, 90 km. southeast of Jakarta, for example, politicians vying for a position in the House of Representatives produced three additional tonnes of trash per day, straining waste removal systems that are already taxed to the limit. Jakarta itself is in a garbage crisis, from plastic waste, as is the fading and trash-ridden island paradise of Bali.

Palembang, 600 km. to the north in South Sumatra, was hit by even more campaign trash in 2014. The amount of garbage hauled to the Sukawinatan Palembang Keramasan Landfill, normally 600 tonnes per day, zoomed to 620 tonnes as politicians sought the voters’ attention with a choking amount of campaign literature

The increasing volume of waste, according to Nasution, Palembang’s sanitary office chief, that was transported to the district’s two final disposal sites, didn’t change across the entire Palembang area. It was only in zones where heavy campaigning was taking place.

"From the results of our monitoring, the volume of garbage in Palembang increased by 20 tonnes per day during this campaign period," Nasution explained to the website.

It’s more than likely that the 2019 race will provide even more, given the presidential stakes and the fact that the number of eligible voters has risen to 196.5 million people.


One major cause of the increase is that most of the campaigning is by billboards, flyers, brochures and banners. While some campaigns have gone digital in recent years, these media are still used principally to target voters, only 24 percent of whom have access to education. One of the major inhibitions against digital campaign is the high cost. The total in the 2014 race, when Jokowi and Prabowo squared off against each other, reached Rp186.63 billion.

This high cost has thus limited candidates to traditional methods. But nobody cleans up the mess. Trash is simply abandoned after campaign-related events or music concerts.

In Makassar, for example, campaign posters and billboards, were ubiquitous across the city and left to on the streets even when the campaign finished. According to internal documents from the South Sulawesi Makassar City government, the volume of waste increased to 900 tonnes per day at that time.

The placement of banners and billboards in any place often causes problems between supporters of certain candidates. As presidential and legislative elections will be held simultaneously, the paper production will rise dramatically. Also the General Election Committee (KPU) must provide 2.5 percent of additional paper ballots. This means that papers that will be used will reach over 400 million ballots. This estimation still ignores the use of paper as administrative, logistic, and other tools. Considering the function of the ballot paper will disappear after the election is over, how will this paper be anchored should be of concern.

Moving to Digitalised Election

Moving the elections to social media could be an option, analysts say. Indonesia’s internet access has skyrocketed over recent years with 88 million people online, including 79 million active social media users although they are almost exclusively in cities. Many parts of the country don’t even have electricity.

Nonetheless, with 111 million Facebook users — active and inactive — Indonesia comes fourth globally and first in Southeast Asia. The country has 24 million users on Twitter, one of the highest in the world, and 8.9 million are on Instagram.

Clearly, social media networks are growing more popular than ever. Thus, using social media as a campaign platform is viable although access to Internet is only apparent in major cities, not in rural areas. Some areas don’t even have electricity.

Even if traditional campaign will still be used during this 2019 presidential election, regulations are needed to prevent the increasing amount of campaign trash, and particularly legislation is needed to mandate cleanup of the mess.

Agus Yudhoyono and Sylviana Murni, who ran in Jakarta’s 2017 gubernatorial race – although losing decisively -- and Taufan Pare-Pangerang Rahim, the candidates in the 2018 regional election in Pare-Pare, South Sulawesi, set examples by cleaning up their trash after the races ended. It would be good to see more political candidates do the same thing.

As the massive use of papers, the government could try to employ the use of computers in the ballot box. This would help minimise the use of papers during the election. This initiative has been applied in some cases such as in the U.S.