Nohelia and her Landfillharmonic instrument made of trash

Nohelia plays an instrument made from items found in a landfill. (Photo: Landfillharmonic Project)

They say everybody’s a critic, but as consumer culture spawns growing constellations of refuse, many artists are finding an unusual medium for their visions. From sidewalk trash to landfill piles, garbage is finding its way to museums, theaters, and even concert halls all around the world.

In the slums outside of Asuncion, Paraguay, a community better known for drugs, poverty, and despair has managed to produce one of the most remarkable orchestras you’ll ever hear of. Music teacher Favio Chavez came to the town of Cateura to start a music school for local children, but quickly realized the demand was much greater than the number of instruments the school could provide. With help from Cola, a local garbage picker and luthier, they found ways to craft instruments from the vast landfill surrounding the city.

Now Chavez leads an orchestra whose cellos are artfully made from oil cans, violins from aluminum bowls, and a flute section crafted from discarded plumbing. The Recycled Orchestra is the subject of an upcoming documentary, Landfillharmonic, and is currently fundraising for a world tour.

Eye test by Pam Longobardi

"Eye Test Chart" by Pam Longobardi. (Photo: Pam Longobardi)

Thousands of miles from Paraguay’s slums, artist Pam Longobardi has spent years traveling the globe, seeking out seemingly untouched spots — a secluded shoreline in Hawaii, barren stretches of coastal Alaska — and recovering the sea swept debris of remote cities and nations. “For me, plastic has come to stand for the heavy hand of human presence in every corner of the globe,” Longobardi tells

She has created the Drifters Project and is a participating artist with Expedition: Gyre, both of which provide outlets for her creative vision of highlighting the tons of plastic bits and pieces that can now be found everywhere on Earth where oceans touch land. The swirling gyres that form where ocean currents intersect become vortices of trash as toys, containers, fishing nets, buoys, shoes, and other scraps of civilization make a waterborne transit across the globe.

art made with found plastic and driftnet

"Shrine to the Last Sailor" by Pam Longobardi is made with found plastic and driftnet. (Photo :Pam Longobardi)

Meanwhile, the ocean stewards at Surfrider Foundation Europe came up with a brilliant way to showcase the problems of oil spills and beached trash when the Foundation began releasing annual pin-up calendars. In the style of Sports Illustrated’s celebrated swimsuit issue, Surfrider’s features gorgeous models covered in crude oil, or lounging on beaches littered with garbage.

It’s a smart and effective way to tell a story that many of us, especially those living inland, may not fully appreciate the scope of.

But for sweeping, detail-oriented art crafted from the cast offs of consumer civilization, maybe no one quite matches the obsessive works of American photographer Chris Jordan. Starting with materials – 400,000 plastic bottle caps (the number discarded every 30 seconds), 139,000 cigarette butts (the number discarded every 15 seconds) — Jordan designs huge works which drive home the startling scale of the problem with consumption in the quantities that we’ve become used to.

Aside from his conceptual pieces, Jordan has also made numerous trips to Midway Island, part of an uninhabited South Pacific atoll some 2,000 miles from the nearest human population center. His photographs of dead albatrosses, starved after filling their stomachs with brightly colored plastic trinkets like cigarette lighters and pen caps, have been viewed millions of times online, and even spawned an upcoming movie, "Midway: Message From the Gyre," scheduled for release later this year.

These artists and projects may or may not offer us a hopeful glimpse of the world, but by presenting the problem in ways that are approachable and even beautiful, perhaps they give people one more reason to review their relationship with plastic and our system of mass consumption.

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When art is garbage
Creative upcycling leads to cellos made from oil cans and works created with plastic bottle caps.