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299: Sustainable or recycled musical instruments

Problem:

The metals used in brass and wind musical instruments are not biodegradable. Small pieces of metal, such as tin cans, will rust and flake into the atmosphere after about 100 years, but something as large as an instrument takes much longer.

While woodwind instruments almost brought their African blackWood or Mpingo forest source to extinction, spruce, maple, rainforest mahogany, ebony and rosewood trees used for guitars were being cut down faster than they could be replaced.

Solutions:

In 1996, Tanzanian botanist Sebastien Chuwa and US woodturner James Harris founded the African BlackWood Conservation Project, working with students to plant hundreds of mpingo saplings to save the forest.

Their campaign received little international attention until a BBC documentary, “The Tree of Music” focussed world attention on the extinction risk.  By 2004, Chuwa’s goal was achieved and more than 20,000 trees were planted in that year alone.

Also in 1996, Gibson, one of the world’s premier guitar brands, became the first in the industry to make some of its instruments using wood certified as “sustainably harvested” by the non-profit Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).

In 2008 Gibson was joined by other guitar manufacturers Taylor, Fender, Martin, Guild, Walden and Yamaha to sign on as partners with Music Wood Coalition, a project of the leading environmental non-profit Greenpeace to promote changes in logging practices that would secure the longterm sustainability of tonewoods.

There are alternative solutions. In 2006, Favio Chávez, music teacher, and Nicolás “Cola” Gómez, a rubbish picker, began to wonder if they could create instruments from garbage they found on the large landfill in Cateura, a small town in Paraguay where residents suffer extreme poverty.

With the help of lutier Nicolás Gómez, Chàvez began to manufacture all kinds of instruments with which children could play.Their workshop became a place of musical refinement and experimentation. An oil drum was a good body for a cello; a bent kitchen fork for a violin tailpiece. The first few scratchy instruments were given to local kids for whom a new violin might cost a month of their parents’ wages.

Chávez began to train his ensemble which he called La Orquesta de Instrumentos Reciclados de Cateura, or The Cateura Recycled Orchestra, formed by young people from 11 to 25 years at risk of social exclusion. Since 2012 the orchestra has given concerts, not only in South America, but all over the world.

In 2015 “Landfill Harmonic”, a film that follows their journey, won a special mention in the environment award at the prestigious Sheffield Doc/Fest. The orchestra has now spawned copycats and is connected with similar groups who have formed independently from Ecuador, Panama, Brazil and Burundi. In Mexico, the Orquestra Basura (Trash Orchestra) have recorded albums and achieved minor celebrity status.

Another solution was found by Simon Lee of Burgos, Spain, originally trained as a sculptor who used these skills to work as a prop and model maker in the theatre, film and television industries.

After many years of working he decided to retrain as a guitar maker at Merton College London, but instead of using traditional tropical hardwoods materials, in 2008, he recycled. Lee’s Cyclotron guitars are made from recycled CDs, yoghurt pots and offcuts of industrial pipes. Though the neck is still made in wood, Simon makes it a point to source materials locally where possible.

Art Mayer of Copper Guitars in Moscow, Russia has built the the iCaster, a Tele-style guitar built from 107 Apple iPhone cases, gluing them together in a block roughly four phones thick and then carving out the body, which also includes a recycled mahogany sustain block.

Discover Solution 300: Organic-inorganic hybrid material for separating CO²

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