September 25, 2020

By ELISSA DEN HOED

Another day, another dumpster. He roars into driveways in his enormous green Mack truck, lifting garbage containers lid over bottom with two metal prongs and turning the fallen garbage into mashed potatoes with a hydraulic packing blade inside the vehicle. If you happen to look at the driver’s side door, you’ll know who it is. “Manny,” it reads.

That’s Manny Cavaco, to be exact. Like many in the waste industry, he started out in a completely different field, hotel management, with a degree from Wilfrid Laurier University. Now he collects solid waste from apartment, retail, industrial, church and even the occasional private home or farm dumpsters for a living and says he’s content.

Dressed in a reflective neon-yellow hoodie and green work pants, Cavaco, up and at ’em since 3 a.m., is still fighting yawns in the early winter morning at the Waterloo Waste Management headquarters at 5:30, the time his workday begins. An immigrant to Canada at 12 years old, he still has a trace of a Portuguese accent. He’s a joker and a teaser with both his co-workers and customers and will laugh loudly many times throughout the day.

The moon, an orange sliver, still hangs in the black sky as he heads down the highway toward Cambridge, his first stop of the morning. Not a cold weather person, he blasts the heat.

As he drives, he explains why he quit the hotel business: too many customers were picky and complained. “People with the most money,” he adds, “complain the most.” At least one good thing came out of it: it was in the hotel business where he first met his wife.

A friend led him to a job at Waste Management, where he’s now a 20-year veteran. He started at the bottom, collecting blue box recycling, then garbage, then driving residential waste trucks. His latest role, collecting dumpster waste in a front-loader, is the second-last rung in the career ladder, but Cavaco, who enjoys the simple life, says he isn’t interested in advancing to an office position and being “stuck behind a desk” all day – not to mention dealing with the office politics and administrative headaches. “Aw, forget about it!” he says good-naturedly, flipping his hand dismissively.

After picking up a load of junked wood pallets and taking them to a recycler, it’s off to Guelph for the rest of the day. It’s a bumpy ride in his garbage galleon, and Cavaco likes to drive fast. The heavy truck bounces and rattles violently over every manhole, pothole and crack in the road along today’s route.

Cavaco checks his stops off on a clipboard as he goes. Some containers are less than half-full; others are overflowing. Cavaco never knows exactly what he can expect to find at the end of each driveway. The biggest scare he remembers having was when a man jumped up from inside a dumpster he was about to lift. He’d been sleeping in it.

A joystick to the right of the steering wheel controls the lifting arm. As the contents fall from a dumpster, the truck shakes; it feels like a minor earthquake. The odour, surprisingly, is minimal to none. Around nine, after an unloading at the Guelph transfer station, Cavaco starts thinking about coffee. “Tim Hortons, here we come!”

As he finishes the last of his large double-double, Cavaco admits that not all days go this smooth. One icy winter day, his truck was halfway up the hilly driveway of a farm when it started sliding back down.

And then there are the quirky customers he occasionally deals with – such as the client who warned him not to turn around in his parking lot because the truck’s tires left marks on the asphalt.

Today while he empties a dumpster in a narrow apartment driveway, a car approaches from the other direction with barely enough room to scrape by. “He’ll find a way,” Cavaco says. And it does. Barely. Seconds later, a taxi approaches and squeezes by as well, scraping the curb as it does. “People,” Cavaco says, shaking his head.

He empties each dumpster with a calm, practised professionalism, but is quick to admit that he’s made some mistakes in the past – like the time he accidentally dropped a dumpster itself into the truck, and had little choice but to compact it with the rest of the garbage.

Nearing the end of the day, a sports car speeds past Cavaco’s truck and for no clear reason, its driver flips him off. “He’s not a very nice guy, is he?” Cavaco pouts, not losing his humour.

At Cambridge Pallet, the unofficial last stop of the day, a forklift driver stops by the truck to say hello and Cavaco hops out to have a quick chat. “Why does everyone want to talk to me?” he jokes when he returns to the cab. “I’m just the garbage man!” (He also goes by the title “environmental engineer”).

The day ends around 5:30 p.m., 12 hours later. Cavaco, visibly tired after one of his longer days, works 10 to 12 hours Monday to Friday, as well as the occasional weekend. “There’s good money in garbage,” he says. “And as long as there’s people on this planet, there’s going to be garbage.”

His twin boys, 23, have already begun filling his steel-toed boots: one collects residential garbage and the other drives a bulldozer, both for Waste Management.

When asked when he will be ready to retire, Cavaco laughs and said, “This job is like retirement!”

“Ah, it’s a job,” he says, of the profession he describes as sitting on his bottom all day and drinking coffee. “I love my job.”