Reverence for Garbage

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

By Robert C. Koehler

“My life would be worthless without music,” the girl said.

And the music came, up from the garbage, through her hands and heart and out to the world. My god, she was playing a violin made out of an old can. A boy was playing a cello crafted with more love and ingenuity than I can imagine, from a used oil drum, old wool and tossed-out beef-tenderizing tools.

The brief YouTube video, precursor to a documentary film to be released in January, is called “Landfill Harmonic”; it’s about a children’s orchestra in a Paraguayan village — a slum — called Cateura, which is built on a landfill. Reclaiming and reselling the trash that arrives every day is the residents’ means of survival. Real violins are not to be found in such a place; they’re worth more than a family’s home.

“There was no money for real instruments when local musician Favio Chavez started his music school in the barrio,” according to the movie’s website, “so together they started to make instruments from trash — violins and cellos from oil drums, flutes from water pipes and spoons, guitars from packing crates.”

Garbage: 1. worthless, useless, or unwanted matter.

When I looked at this brief film, I saw the future flicker. The shift in awareness that will let us live sustainably on this planet is not simply a technological fix or some bitter accommodation to austerity. It’s something far more profound and joyous than that: a realization that there’s no such thing as garbage. Some of the planet’s largest obscenities are its dumps and landfills and burn pits. Instead of honoring the gifts of the Earth, we turn them into litter and poison.

“The word ‘garbage’ means a resource nobody is smart enough to use yet,” John Michael Greer wrote.

Consider the enormity of our unawareness: “The United Nations Environment Program estimated in 2006 that every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic,” according to Jacob Silverman at “In some areas, the amount of plastic outweighs the amount of plankton by a ratio of six to one. Of the more than 200 billion pounds of plastic the world produces each year, about 10 percent ends up in the ocean.”

So we’re killing the ocean with plastic, which doesn’t break down into simpler compounds — i.e., biodegrade — but does break down into infinitesimally small particles of itself, called nurdles (or mermaid tears), which are eaten or absorbed by marine animals. “Over time,” Silverman writes, “even chemicals or poisons that are widely diffused in water can become highly concentrated as they’re mopped up by nurdles. These poison-filled masses threaten the entire food chain, especially when eaten by filter feeders that are then consumed by large creatures.”

We’re spreading toxicity around the planet and into the atmosphere not simply by overconsumption, greed and carelessness but also by a fundamental failure to value all of life. Only humans create garbage. This is because only humans divide the world into value and waste, fragmenting the global whole and turning it against itself. We, or at least some of us, not only turn a portion of our natural resources into garbage but consign part of the human race to the same category. And we’re always at war.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Impoverished Paraguayans can pull beautiful music from a landfill. Could there be a better metaphor for what’s possible as we walk the edge of self-created extinction? Watching their brief video suddenly reminded me of Detroit’s Heidelberg Project — two blocks of found-object art on the embattled, bankrupt city’s East Side. This is my hometown, so I hold the project in special awe.

The Heidelberg Project is the vision of Tyree Guyton, a native Detroit artist who loved the city even as he watched horrific decay begin consuming it following the 1967 riots. In 1986, he took his stand against this process and started turning the street he lived on — abandoned houses and all — into a work of art. He turned street trash into art and art into hope.

“Now in its 27th year, the Heidelberg Project is recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives,” according to the project’s website.

“The Heidelberg Project offers a forum for ideas, a seed of hope, and a bright vision for the future. It’s about taking a stand to save forgotten neighborhoods. It’s about helping people think outside the box and it’s about offering solutions. It’s about healing communities through art — and it’s working!”

And art is no more than creativity and human spirit. “Sustainability requires a level of creativity and attention to which we’re unaccustomed,” says myth scholar Catherine Svehla.

How much attention, for instance, do we pay to cigarette butts? Several trillion of them are tossed away every year, accounting for an enormous percentage of humanity’s annual trash output. A company called TerraCycle, in Trenton, N.J., with the aid of a worldwide cigarette butt collection program, recycles them, melting down the cellulose acetate of the filters and turning them into various products — from industrial pallets to ashtrays.

“I want to solve every kind of garbage that exists,” said TerraCycle CEO Tom Szaky. “My real goal would be that there is no such thing as garbage. Garbage doesn’t exist in nature.”

Finding music in a landfill, repurposing cigarette butts, reclaiming a decaying city — these are journeys of salvation. The Heidelberg Project describes itself as “symbolic of how many communities in Detroit have become discarded.” How many people and how many communities are we in the process of discarding? And what is the relationship between discarding the bounty of this planet and discarding, via fear, racism, exploitation and indifference, one another? Let’s learn to make music instead.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.