Just outside the Paraguayan capital of Asuncion sits Cateura, a massive landfill that receives 1,500 tons of new trash each day. The dumping site’s surrounding neighborhoods are home to several thousand families who make a living by sorting through its rotting waste, and separate out whatever can be sold to the local recycling industry. According to UNICEF, Cateura is a community marked by extreme poverty, illiteracy, and pollution.
Surprisingly, it’s also home to an orchestra—one made up of local children whose instruments are crafted entirely from recycled garbage.
“Los Reciclados,” or The Recycled Orchestra, was formed several years ago when environmentalist and musician Favio Chávez decided to open a music school. Partnering with local garbage picker Nicolás Gómez, also known as “Cola,” Chávez began to build instruments from the trash that surrounded them. Oil drums became violins and cellos, water pipes and bottle caps turned into flutes, and packing crates grew into guitars.
Though it started with just a few children, today the orchestra is made up of 35 kids from the Cateura slum, Chávez gives music lessons to another 200, who also learn how to construct their own recycled instruments.
In an area where poverty forces 40 percent of the children to drop out of school to work, Cateura may seem like the unlikeliest of homes for a budding classical music community. But for the children who’ve come to love it, music has given them a greater purpose. As one young musician in the above video says, “My life would be worthless without music.”
The Recycled Orchestra has become the focus of international attention over the last seven months, after the trailer from an upcoming documentary about the kids, Landfill Harmonic, went viral. The full-length feature isn’t set for release until 2014, but the buzz surrounding it has already propelled the orchestra onto a small Latin American tour, with plans to expand next year to the U.S. and Europe.
The movie’s website says the filmmakers are hoping to shine a light on the global issues of poverty and waste. The World Bank reports that urban residents toss out over one billion tons of solid waste each year. By 2025, that number is expected to increase to over 2 billion tons.
The methane produced by landfills and other industrial processes is over 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. More immediately, the array of household cleaners and industrial solvents tossed into unmanaged landfills form a poisonous sludge that can contaminate water supplies.
The kids of Cateura are already well aware of these issues. Their own local river is so filthy that the filmmakers characterize it as “a sanitary emergency,” one they hope will be addressed as a result of the publicity surrounding the film.
But beyond the environmental issues it raises, the story of Los Reciclados also challenges the way impoverished communities are typically viewed by those far removed from them.
As Chavez says in the trailer, “People realize that we shouldn’t throw trash away carelessly. Well we shouldn’t throw people away either.”