What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the word trash?
Dirt. Germs. Land fill, maybe? Trash is what we call the things we no longer have a use for – the things we throw away and discard never to be thought of again. Even when it’s used in a derogatory sense for people it refers to them as the things we don’t want to think about, the things we wish would disappear. Trash is beneath us.
What about “recycle” though? That sounds better, right? It turns out that it’s not just plastic bottles and newspapers that can be re-used or re-created into something else. Things we throw away are being taken by very creative individuals to create new works of art. Favio Chavez is using the trash sent to a slum in Cateura, Paraguay to build instruments for his teenage students. They make cellos out of rusted oil bins and violins out of old tin. Ordinarily a violin is worth more than a house in that slum. The families who live there raid the land fill for trash to recycle and re-sell and they’ve begun to make instruments for their children. The children then perform in the Recycled Orchestra.
In a different part of South America – on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – artist Vik Muniz is trying to change the lives of a community of catadores, garbage collectors. They are an unemployed, marginalized part of society, collecting garbage in the largest landfill in the world for recyclable materials to sell and make their living. Vik creates portraits of them with the garbage they collect every day. His original intention was to create the portraits, sell them and use the money to help the catadores find an elevated station in life, but the art inevitably became a collaboration. Vik would take a picture of each of the catadores and then project it onto the floor of a nearby warehouse and every day the catadores would help him fill the picture with the recyclables they had found that day in the landfill. For three years they filmed the process and created a documentary called “Waste Land.” The workers say that the movie has lifted a stigma around their profession and the country of Brazil uses it to encourage recycling nationwide.
These stories take place in two different places, told by two different people with very similar themes. These projects force us to take another look at areas of humanity where we tend to turn a blind eye. They show us that the things we dismiss can be beautiful, the things we throw away can be works of art. So the next time you’re throwing anything away, take a deeper look.