This post was originally produced for Forbes.
At 29, Brett Durbin went to Tegucigalpa, Honduras to find a cause for his church to support. He’d never imagined how this would change his life. The organization he ultimately founded, Trash Mountain Project, serves the people who make their living—such as it is—by scavenging in the developing world’s trash dumps.
With fires constantly smoldering, burning a mix of toxic and noxious materials, these are literally hellish places, Durbin, now 37, explains. Toddlers, adults and the aged—entire multi-generational families—hunt for food to eat and anything of value to sell crawling and clawing through everything from animal to industrial waste.
After visiting Honduras, Durbin looked for an organization focused on serving the trash dump communities he’d seen. A professor counseled him, “The last thing we need is another nonprofit organization.”
After months of searching, however, he’d found no organization focused on serving them—though some had activities and provided services there—so, with the support of his professor and his wife, he decided to launch Trash Mountain Project.
Today, the 501(c)(3) is working at nine locations in five countries with eight full-time staff members in Kansas and 44 people receiving full-time support from the organization working at one of the sites.
Living in an Actual Dump
“These are individuals rummaging through trash and waste to find plastic or other recoverable waste. They are the poorest of the poor in many cities. Their living conditions, their health, and their future is some of the most precarious you will find on the globe,” echoes James Copple, President of Servant Forge, which is exploring a partnership with Durbin’s organization.
The challenges facing residents of trash dump communities are hard to comprehend for most of living in the developed world. Every year, hundreds of people are killed by trash avalanches. The residents face constant exposure to heavy metals as well as other poisons. The food they eat, picked from the pile, is contaminated. The animals they eat, whether they are fish, chickens or rodents are similarly contaminated.
“We see kids as young as you know two and three years old picking through the trash with their families,” Durbin says.
While Durbin has focused most of his energy on the humanitarian implications of trash dump communities, he is quick to point out that it is also an environmental disaster. The same lack of regulation and waste control that allows a two-year-old to scavenge for dinner in a toxic, burning pile of garbage, also allows for the waste to contaminate the environment. Virtually any contaminant that enters the water system ends up in the oceans we all share.
Simply closing dumps isn’t an optimal solution. It neither addresses the environmental nor the humanitarian crises. The trash dump creates an ecosystem; when you close it, the livelihoods of every person in the community is threatened but the toxic leaching continues.
“I’ve seen one police officer in 54 trash dump communities over nine years. This is it’s not a place where things are safe. Even police don’t really feel safe there in most scenarios,” Durbin explains.
Incremental Actions Bring Long-term Progress
Kevin Conard, owner of Blue Jazz Coffee Roasters, has become a supporter of Trash Mountain Project. For every bag of coffee sold, his company donates enough to buy a meal for a child living in a trash dump community in the Dominican Republic. He reports donating 57,000 meals to date.
Conard explains, “To me, Trash Mountain Project ultimately is in the business of infusing hope where there is none. They go into places where there is corruption, gang violence, social injustices galore, hatred, etc., and in very tangible ways, plant seeds of love, hope, future, systems, education, spiritual health… and over time, those seeds grow and spread through the community, slowly replacing the bad. It’s wonderful to see these growing pockets of good in places so dark.”
Trash Mountain Project is directly providing or partnering with other organizations to provide technical job training, food and nutrition, health care, and elder care. The organization, after eight years of service at the grassroots level, is now seeking to become more of a political force, advocating on behalf of these communities and the environmental devastation.
Durbin points to families who leave the trash dump communities as success stories. The work is, however, tricky. You can’t tell people they should leave. “So that’s something we’re not telling them to do. The last thing you want to do is minimize what they’re doing. I mean this is their livelihood.”
As their kids start to get better nutrition through Trash Mountain Project efforts to get them fed and educated, the families begin to appreciate the value of nutrition and seek out healthier food. When such families reach a point that their dignity is restored to the point that they both want to function and can function outside of the trash dump community, Durbin says that’s a win for him.
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