Transforming Trash Mountain: Topeka-based group tackles global issue

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Timm Collins says it's poverty unlike anything anywhere in the U.S.

"Even the poor people call them poor," he said. "In America, we can't even wrap our minds around what's going on in these communities."

The communities he describes are centered on trash dumps. Every day, in thousands of locations around the world, people scavenge through mountains of trash, looking for anything to earn a few pennies, to eat - to live.

"There are people with children digging through trash, mothers who have newborns and they carry them onto the trash dump because they have no other choice. If they don't work today, they don't eat tomorrow," Collins said. "You see hypodermics, you see medical waste - there have even been body parts found."

The only organization known to be working to address the issue on a global basis is based in Topeka. For Trash Mountain Project, it's not just about meeting immediate needs. It's a long-term vision for the future, including education and training. Often times, children must accompany their parents to work on the dump so they do not attend school. Those who do attend school are often treated as outcasts because of their status living on the dumps.

"They feel like they don't exist - and often they are viewed that way by their society. It's just like people look through them," Collins said, who is TMP's chief operating officer. "What you see in a dump community is they live in a cycle of despair, they have no hope. Our goal, really, long-term, is to move them out of that cycle of despair and into a cycle of hope. And that can only be accomplished when you provide opportunities for them to provide for themselves."

Collins says the work began in 2009, when founder, Brett Durbin, a Washburn Rural High School graduate, visited Honduras looking for a mission for the Florida church at which he was then working. He met pastor Jeony Ordoniez, who worked with the trash dump community. Overwhelmed, Durbin immediately wanted to move there and help feed, cloth and educate. But Pastor Jeony said he didn't need Americans to move in, take over and do the work. He needed their help to gain and coordinate resources.

The suggestion has become Trash Mountain Project's approach.

"(The local leaders) understand the context. They know the the local resources that are available - and really, they're just waiting for someone to come alongside them and help them," Collins said.

Some of the work in how to help the trash dump communities move toward self-sufficiency is being done in a modest metal building just north of Topeka. It houses an aquaponics growing operation.

"Malnutrition's always a big issue," explains Chris Mammoliti, TMP's aquaponics director. "They don't typically get fresh vegetables, fresh greens. A lot of what they get is what they come across in the dump and it's half rotted."

TMP is studying whether aquaponics can take root as a sustainable food source for the trash dump communities.

"Typically, around the garbage dumps, the land is, the soil is in very poor condition. There's not a lot of water available in those areas. A lot of the ground is contaminated and there's not a lot of space to do a traditional farm," Mammoliti said.

Aquaponics is a self-contained system to raise both fish and plants. Mammoliti says bacteria converts the ammonia, which is part of the fish waste, to a form of nitrogen that the plants use. As the water moves through the fish tank into the plant tables and back to the fish tank, it's a continuous cycle. Solid wastes can be removed for raised beds, but not even those are a subject of study.

"We can always find cinder blocks, we can always find tin cans, we can always find pieces of pipe (on the dumps). There's actually an old piece of carpet down there - the plants are just growing in the carpet," Mammoliti. "Can we turn those into containers to grow plants?"

Plants provide nutrients, while the fish (they grow tilapia) provide protein. With the warmer weather conditions in many of these countries, they can harvest their fish in about six months. A long-term goal of aquaponics would be to produce enough to not only feed themselves, but also sell extra produce to earn income.

But to translate the system to the poorest of areas, they study what works best, and cheapest.

"Ultimately, if we want these to be sustainable, they have to be very cost efficient," Mammoliti said.

TMP launched its first aquaponics project at its Dominican Republic site in 2014. Honduras followed a year later, and the Philippines began last year.

In April, Mammoliti got to see the Honduras site in action, now feeding about 150 people at a school and church TMP supports.

"You can see a change in the kids health wise. (They're) beginning to recognize there's more that they can do than just work on a garbage dump. They now are learning how to grow their own food, which you can see the excitement building with that," he said.

As exciting as the successes are, a map filled with push pins hanging in the TMP office illustrates a seemingly daunting task ahead.

"We originally thought there could be as many as 1500 of these locations around the world. Now, we're thinking the number could be as high as 20,000 or more," Collins said. "We are right now in 8. To move where we need to be isn't an addition thing, it's multiplication."

But they are committed. Each smile from a child who's finished a nutritious meal or found success in a lesson at school is evidence of hope for the future.

"We want to be behind them, cheering them on," Collins said.

To learn more or support their efforts, visit www.trashmountainproject.com.