One Man’s Trash…

by Alexis Cruzzavala:

“Don’t forget to wash your hands!”

It was a phrase I had heard a million times during my stay in the Chapada Diamantina. We had spent a peaceful week in this nationally protected jungle located in the interior of Bahia, focused on learning and assisting with the sustainable practices of the community Vale do Capao. My group tended medicinal plants, cared for seedlings, and sorted through compost piles. Surrounded by only the sounds of colorful birds and eating locally-grown fruits and vegetables, our time in the community garden was a welcome change from our experiences in the bustling cities of Fortaleza and Salvador. But on one of our last days in the Chapada, we traveled to the city of Palmeiras to visit a local NGO focused on recycling.

We expected to be ushered into a standard brick building painted a pastel color, which is normal for Brazil; what we didn’t expect was entering a structure made entirely of recycled goods and home to over 530 species of native plants growing in the nursery. Several tree houses hung overhead (which we later discovered housed some of the workers), mountains of aluminum cans and plastic bottles were heaped around, and a truck parked outside was decorated with old soda cans and bottle tops. The NGO, Grupo Ambientalista de Palmeiras (GAP), had constructed their headquarters entirely out of local trash from the surrounding city.

Two students stand outside the entrance to the GAP building in Palmeiras, Bahia. (Cruzzavala/TYG)

We were divided into groups and assigned a catador to take us on their daily trash-collecting route. Catadores are recycled goods collectors, and they are found across Brazil. What began as way to escape poverty by selling back recyclables to companies like Coca Cola has transformed into one of Brazil’s most well-known social movements. To be a catador is to not only collect trash from local communities or nearby landfills, but also often to live in the landfills in homes built solely from trash. Vic Muniz, a Brazilian artist, recently released his film Waste Land that documents the lives of several catadores living in the largest landfill in Brazil, Jardim Germânico. The film has brought international attention to the social injustice suffered by these people and has since pressured state and the national governments to step in and change the miserable living conditions of the catadores.

In Palmeiras, however, many of the catadores are schoolteachers, and GAP is only an NGO—not a permanent lifestyle or profession. Nevertheless, they work daily on pre-determined routes in Palmeiras, picking up, sorting and selling back the trash they collect. According to Yara, the coordinator of GAP, 80 percent of the trash collected is reusable and that the other 20 percent is sent to a landfill.

Anything and everything is used to house the seedlings in the GAP nursery. (Cruzzavala/TYG)

Yara has been working with the NGO since its founding in the early 1990s. It began as a simple trash collection and recycling organization, and has grown into much more: it is now a source of environmental education, a center for art classes using recyclable goods, the base of a volunteer fire brigade that protects the jungle surrounding the city, and an expansive nursery for local plants. The workers at GAP understand that just picking up trash is insufficient—the community, especially the younger generations, must be taught the importance of protecting the environment and the methods of doing so.

We spent only a few hours scouring the streets of Palmeiras in search of trash, but the catadores were thrilled with our contributions and shared their individual stories with us. Their pride in their work was evident, and they expressed excitement that a group of Americans had come to visit and learn from them. Our presence was enough to reaffirm the group’s importance even though we felt that we had done very little.

One of the many ways the Catadores at GAP collect trash is with this biodiesel-powered truck, decorated in used soda cans, bottle tops, and baby dolls. (Cruzzavala/TYG)

Working alongside this NGO left many of us in a state of doubt. How much had we really helped? Is the work of one NGO actually making an impact on a larger scale? Brazil is notorious for its trash. As you walk down the street, it’s common to see women emptying trash bins from their windows and little kids playing with discarded wrappers and bottles in public parks. Only seven municipalities in the country collect recyclables from 100 percent of their residents. In Fortaleza, the concept of recycling is foreign; many communities, especially poorer neighborhoods, are skipped over entirely by trash collectors. A friend who has been living in the neighborhood Carlitos Pamplona for the past three months drove by a local “dumpster” the size of a two-story house every morning on her way to school. In 2010, the country saw a 6.8 percent increase in trash (organic and inorganic), and this is a number that is expected to increase this year as well. While NGOs like GAP do their part in one community, it’s evident that the problems persist unchecked on a larger scale. Like Yara and others at GAP explained, it’s important to not only incorporate a system of recycling into a community, but to also begin educating the community and spreading environmental awareness.

But perhaps there’s hope. Specialty high schools across Brazil have started incorporating environmental education into curricula—and into the construction of the schools themselves. The national government is broadcasting a series of ads on the television station TeleGlobo, aimed at teaching Brazilians about the importance of recycling, sustainable living, and taking care of the environment. There is still much to be done, but with the help of NGOs like GAP alongside other initiatives, we could see Brazil open up a new chapter in environmental activism.

Alexis Cruzzavala ’13 is in Davenport College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger, writing about her experiences studying abroad in Fortaleza, Brazil with an SIT: Social Justice and Sustainable Development program. Contact her at