Written by Peter Lehner, Executive Director, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council)
I played the cello for many years, but I doubt I ever produced any music as inspiring as 19-year-old Juan Manuel Chavez playing the prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite #1, on a cello made out of an oil can and discarded wood.
Juan is a resident of Cateura, a landfill outside Paraguay’s capital city, Asuncion. About 2,500 families make their homes—and their livelihoods—in and around this dump, sifting through 1,500 tons of solid waste each day to pluck out items for recycling.
Recycling is a grim way of life in Cateura, but it also provides a ray of hope, in the form of an unlikely orchestra. On instruments lovingly assembled from trash—discarded tin cans and utensils, sheets of x-rays, forks, bottle caps, pipes and oil cans—the children of Cateura are learning to play music.
Many of the instruments are made by local resident Nicolas Gomez, a trash-picker himself. A documentary about the orchestra, Landfill Harmonic, is in the works, and the film’s teaser video has gone viral.
The orchestra not only turns waste into music—it turns waste into dreams. Through the orchestra, kids from the slums of Cateura have traveled to Brazil, Panama and Colombia, playing everything from Beethoven to the Beatles and Paraguayan polka.
“I can’t live without this orchestra,” Rocio Riveros, a 15-year-old who plays a flute made of tin cans, told the AP.
The orchestra is ingenious and inspiring and deserves every accolade—but it is not the answer to a very serious waste management problem. Asuncion, like so many cities in the developing world, lacks a fully developed system for collecting and disposing of its garbage. The resulting air and water pollution is a health hazard for the people of Cateura and millions of others like them.
Some Latin American cities are taking steps to improve waste collection. In Puebla, Mexico, members of the Green Wallet initiative earn points on a debit card for every kilogram of waste they bring to designated collection points around the city. The points are redeemable at local businesses, for everything from children’s clothes to movie tickets to cell phone minutes. In Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the city has formally incorporated the local waste pickers association into the municipal waste management system, giving them access to recycling points, a sorting center and even a truck for transporting recyclable materials. In Curitiba, residents get food baskets and money for their neighborhood associations by bringing 8 to 10 kilograms of waste into collection centers.
These initiatives are a small but promising step toward making these cities healthier places to live. For now, Cateura’s Recycled Orchestra brings joy and purpose to the lives of its young residents. In the future, perhaps the orchestra will also draw the attention and resources needed to provide them with clean air, clean water and a safe and healthy way to make a living.
This is part of NRDC’s Wasteland series, featuring people, towns, businesses and industries that are finding innovative ways to cut waste, boost efficiency and save money, time and valuable resources.