Picture piles of rubbish: plastic bags, cups, packaging, CDs, a rusting metal tube, rotting nappies, glass jars and bottles, wire and paper wrappers. Imagine children from babies to teens scavenging among the rotting garbage.
Most of us would throw our hands up in horror - and perhaps empty our pockets to a charity collector before moving on. But that’s not what Amy Hanson did.
Trying to find more meaning out of life than that served up in her role as a showbiz reporter, in 2008 Hanson volunteered to work and teach at an HIV hospice in Cambodia. Puzzled to find few children there, she asked one of the doctors where they were. He replied without surprise “oh, they’re all at the rubbish dump”.
And that is how Hanson ended up taking an impromptu visit to the local tip Stung Meanchey in Phnom Penh.
“There were kids everywhere, including naked babies, and I was absolutely shocked,” she says. “They were pointing at my wellington boots saying ‘can I
have them’ and I thought ‘well, why not’.” And so the seed was sown for her charity, the Small Steps Project.
Hanson returned to the UK and, within a week, had raised £1,500 - enough to buy around 900 pairs of wellies. She made a documentary about the project and publicity snowballed. She quit her job and started working full-time for Small Steps.
“I gave an interview in the London newspaper Metro. I said that if every celebrity I had ever interviewed donated a pair of shoes, I could sell them and buy aid, and they started coming in.”
This was the origins of the charity’s annual celebrity shoe auction. Celebs that have donated shoes include Keira Knightly, Sienna Miller, Joanna Lumley, Kate Moss, Ben Stiller, Ralph Fiennes, Colin Firth and Liam Gallagher.
So Hanson’s endeavour to ‘make a difference’ evolved into a charity that provided shoes, and subsequently became a full aid project that delivers education, improved nutrition, hygiene and shelter for kids working on dumps around the world.
The charity also makes documentaries that it uses to spread the message and fundraise. Small Steps pledges that 100% of public donations go to help children working on landfills.
“We rely on volunteers. But we do pay ‘in-country’ doctors and social workers. A lot of charities spend a huge amount on admin and flights, but not Small Steps,” says Hanson.
Photo: Alex Trejo
The charity has identified numerous rubbish dumps around the world where people live, under a project Called Around The World In 80 Dumps. When Small Steps identifies a tip to work with, it identifies all the NGOs and services - if there are any - already engaged with the workers on the dump, and finds out the demographic and number of children working there.
It then partners with those NGOs that are close to its own principles and tailors its approach to the particular situation, looking at what emergency and medical aid is needed.
As a basic approach, Small Steps focuses on keeping children off the landfills.
“Babies and toddlers are not much use as scavengers, although a lot of parents want their older children to help,” says Hanson. “So for those over six, we provide uniforms and shoes and send them to school. We recompense the parents with what they would lose out on by not sending their children to work on the dump, such as rice, water and tarpaulins. And we provide crèches for the younger children.”
At the site that Hanson first came across in Phnom Penh, for example, the charity started off by giving out shoes, then provided families with food, clothes and hygiene kits.
At another Cambodian dump at Siem Reap, an NGO had already established a community centre with classes for young children. But it did not have facilities for older children, so Small Steps provided a school bus to take them to classes at another centre.
In Nicaragua, Small Steps used one of its documentaries about the dump projects to highlight to a group of fundraising firemen and volunteers, the Kamloops Firefighters Operation Nicaragua. They are now in the process of sending three fire trucks, an ambulance and two shipping containers of aid, including 7,000 pairs of shoes, to poor neighbourhoods and landfills around the country.
While helping children working on dumps in a practical way, Hanson and her volunteers also question where the waste is coming from. Some is generated within the country, but Hanson says her research shows a lot comes from first world countries - with the exception of Scandinavia and New Zealand and just 2% from Australia.
She recognises that the people working on the dumps are “doing a really important job” in sorting the waste so that it can be recycled. But she argues that the waste should ideally be sorted in the countries where it was produced.
“There has been a lot of publicity about huge electrical dumps [in developing countries], yet electrical recycling companies in the UK are not being used to their full capacity,” says Hanson. “We need better monitoring.”
But if waste does end up in developing countries then, at the very least, Small Steps would like to see no children under 16 allowed to work on landfills. It also wants to see the work become more formalised so that proper protection - gloves and boots, and hygiene kits - and amenities for workers and their families is provided.
Hanson notes a growing trend for businesses from developed countries to buy up municipal sites to access the materials for recycling. Unfortunately, the children and families working on the tips do not always benefit.
“When these landfill sites are privatised, they are organised and made profitable,” says Hanson. “But the elderly, the women, the sick and children, who all work on the dump - there is a complete disregard for them. When companies come in and privatise these dumps, we would like some thought about these families, with the provision of proper protection, accommodation and crèches.”
During privatisation, outside workers are sometimes brought in, depriving these families of their livelihoods. Other times the workers may still be employed but are paid a pittance for collecting “bales and bales” of wire and other materials. Fifty pence a day does not go far.
To donate or find out more, visit www.smallstepsproject.org