The town of Cateura, Paraguay sits on the country’s largest landfill, a community of people as forgotten by most of the population as the trash they sort through to eke out a living. Towns like that rarely have much to boast about, but Cateura has a youth orchestra. It has toured internationally playing instruments made of recycled trash.
The article I wrote about it for my blog Musicology for Everyone is based on a preview of a feature-length film that will be released some time next year. I pointed out some implications for music education in the US. Here, I want to explore thoughts that it raises about recycling.
Some problems with landfills
First off, the instruments play as well as regular instruments made for students. It seems nothing short of miraculous that a craftsman who knew nothing about orchestral music could take measurements and figure out how to make mechanical and acoustical equivalents from junk. The man is a genius, and I doubt very much that very many other people could duplicate his achievement.
On the other hand, plenty of people are quite capable of making any number of other very useful objects from what people discard. It could never happen at any landfill in the US, however. We don’t allow towns to be built on them. And I suppose in most places the trash is compacted (that is, effectively destroyed) to save space.
If artists, craftspeople, and others want to make musical instruments, found object sculptures, or anything else from other people’s discards, they have to get to them before the stuff makes it to the landfill.
From what I have learned about how manufacturers use post-consumer waste to make new products, they don’t preserve or need the original form. Some companies “cook” plastic bottles and then spin the resulting liquid into polyester that can be used to make clothing or other products from fabric. Some companies grind up, say, Christmas tree lights and use a centrifuge to separate the various plastics and metals.
So one point is that once recyclable materials make it to the landfill, they become commingled with food waste, construction rubble, chemical residues, and whatever else gets dumped that day. It all gets mashed together and covered with dirt. Some day, I keep reading, manufacturers will begin to mine old landfills to recover valuable materials.
Surely it’s less expensive and more productive to keep as much stuff out of the landfill as possible. The amount of food wasted in this country is scandalous, but could it be composted?
It has only recently become illegal to put old computers and other obsolete electronics in landfills. Before that, most jurisdictions had established some kind of system for removing hazardous household wastes (old paint, used motor oil, many cleaning products, dead batteries, etc.) out of the waste stream.
Unfortunately, even assuming complete compliance from this time forward, these things are not only contributing to leachate, but also tainting whatever useful materials might be mined some time in the future.
Probably the most important point of the video is how possession of a musical instrument and the opportunity to make music gave a new hope and dignity to the members of the recycled orchestra. Making the instruments and seeing the joy they provided for the children who played them.
As I pointed out in the other article, music has the power to lift the poorest and most deprived people out of hopelessness and despair, but so do many other things.
Earlier I expressed the opinion that the ability to make good, playable classical instruments from trash simply by taking careful measurements and experimenting comes from one man’s special and unexpected genius. If I am correct, the Cateura orchestra cannot be replicated just anywhere.
But on the other hand, people with the necessary genius and imagination to do various other things with trash are probably common. If my readers have that ability or know someone who does, how can you make your own contribution to enhancing the dignity of people in your sphere of influence?