“Somehow, I was already a collector, since my mother’s womb, and it took me 80 days to leave Bahia and get to São Paulo, either on my feet or hitchhiking. In the big city, I ended up becoming a street person and lived on picking up all kinds of stuff; but soon I realized we work better together, so I helped to create a waste recycling cooperative based on a few principles: waste does not exist, everybody’s work should be appraised, and nobody earns more than anybody. My work aims at making people more environmentally aware, mainly when it comes to waste recycling and sorting.”
Located in the suburban area of Salvador, Bahia, the Canabrava Landfill used to be home to nearly 3 thousand waste collectors - both men and women - some sixty years ago. Among them, there was a newly-born baby named Sérgio da Silva Bispo. “Somehow, I was already a collector, since my mother’s womb,” says Bispo. By the way, he didn’t even come to know who his parents were.
He grew up learning how to handle waste to get food and counting on the help of his fellow collectors who lived and worked in the same area. This was so until he turned six, when the landfill closed and Bispo was sent to an orphanage. “I was a kid, unable to understand the orphanage’s rules. I preferred living free outdoors despite all the challenges,” he tells us. Then, within one year from his arrival there, he succeeded in fleeing away from the orphanage and lived for years in Bahia’s capital city streets, picking up materials and exposed to all sorts of hazards.
As a teenager, Bispo was arrested because of his addiction to alcohol. “Whenever I managed to make some money, I used to go to Sir Batista’s to ‘swallow up some stuff’. There, I met something I had never seen before,” says Bispo while recalling an episode he experienced when he was 16 and which would change his life forever. “It was a TV set! A white Philco TV set, and when I saw all those waste materials on screen, I rushed to the back of the device to see if I could pick everything up,” he tells us bursting into laughter.
Little by little, the TV introduced Bispo to a new world. He, who used to be a garbage collector educated only in the landfill’s reality, realized he could do more. “I saw families on TV sitting at the table - father, mother, and children -, everybody having breakfast and eating well. I thought: that’s it, I want to sit at the table too,” he remembers. “That drew my attention, and I finally met the city of São Paulo, where people make money and families exist. What a crazy thing, isn’t it? It was about money and family, and I wanted them both,” he tells us.
It took him ten years to decide to reach São Paulo. And he did. He had to overcome 80 tiresome days of a journey intertwined with long trekking stretches and rides given by truck drivers. More than a monstrous fatigue and blisters on his feet, on the road, Bispo experienced the worst feeling he would ever know: hatred. “While on the road, I started experiencing that infamous prejudice people have against garbage collectors,” he says. “Often, I had nothing to eat and ran to the trashes to see if I could find something edible. People called me names for that! At the landfill, we used to fight for materials, but nobody called me names. I started thinking on these issues,” he concludes.
New life in São Paulo: winning on garbage
Sérgio da Silva Bispo first settled in São Paulo in 1989, with no idea on where to stay - and this was so over a long time. For many years, he made the downtown streets his home. Bispo used to sleep at 7 de Abril Street and searched the area for commercially valuable waste he took to Glicério to sell for a few bucks; this would feed him and his alcohol addiction.
“Once in São Paulo, I continued working as a recyclable waste collector. It was then that I started to realize the importance of being well organized,” he adds. Bispo noticed that when he sold his stuff alone to junk-dealers, they paid him a price. But when he sold along with other fellow collectors, they would pay him better prices. This is how he came up to the idea that would give birth to the so-called Cooperativa de Trabalho e da Coleta Seletiva dos Catadores da Baixada do Glicério (Cooperglicério, or The Low Glicério Collectors’ Work and Selective Collection Cooperative).
“I started working with other collectors, and this was the first cooperative I helped setting up, which is still around to this day,” he says proudly. Cooperglicério’s organizational structure caught the attention of third sector entities and Bispo was invited to help setting up new cooperatives across Brazil. Thank to his work, he was even invited to speak at the World Social Forum in 2005. “I flew to Porto Alegre and spoke at one of the presentations. I didn’t know how to set this thing up, and had never learned about layout or logistics before,” he tells us as he smiles. After that, he became Bispo Catador once and for all.
“I never attended school or studied anything. I learned how to read with the newspapers I picked up. Later, I learned how to write with my children,” reveals Bispo. “A friend of mine from the university told me I became something I really liked to hear…a self-taught person. Mighty pretty words!” he tells us. This capability was key for him to take a new step forward in his waste management and selective collection work.
Bispo is married, a father of eight children and has also a grandson, Pedro. Ten years ago, when Pedro was only five years old, the little kid asked his grandfather this: “Grandpa, why do you come back home every single day tired of pulling your cart? Why don’t you buy yourself a van?” That was a great idea, but Bispo did not hold a driver’s license. He resorted to his “self-taught” skills and, despite having a poor writing and reading level, he reached out to his friends for help and studied for the driver’s certification exam in his State Traffic Department. He passed.
With the help of his friends he managed to buy a van - beautifully painted with graffiti by partner artists. He named the projec: Kombosa Seletiva (Selective Kombosa - from the van’s name: Kombi), whose aim was to encourage the collective selection of waste across the streets of São Paulo. “The idea shaped up into a van carrying seven male and female collectors,” he tells. Today, besides the old-fashioned Volkswagen Kombi vehicle, they also have bought a Sprinter and a Ducato van colorfully painted with the slogan “Garbage does not exist.”
Kombosa Seletiva became a registered company and currently has 45 partners, including condos, schools, and restaurants. But Bispo does not compromise on working under equal conditions. “We have neither bosses nor direct subordinates. We make decisions together and share profits equally based on hours worked,” he explains. “We want to train and certify more garbage collectors. They said I can be a… startup! I can be a startup, which is a new thing I need to learn more about,” he says with excitement.
Next, Bispo waits for a building to be completed at Brigadeiro Tobias Street. This will be a home for his family and that of over 99 other male and female collectors. “We entered into a financing with Caixa Econômica Federal (a federal bank) for cooperatives and had the building done. We had to learn from scratch,” he adds. “The cool thing about this street is that we used to sleep on its sidewalks, and now, we got our own apartments,” he smiles.