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Hey, Don't Waste Hotel Soap! Give it to Developing Countries

Clean the World initiative comes up with a clean and tidy solution to two dirty problems: wasted soap in some places, and want for soap in others

A small red sign on the bathroom counter caught my eye as I settled into my room at the HotelRED in Madison, Wisconsin, earlier this year: “All used soap left in your room is donated to the Global Soap Project. Reducing waste and saving lives one bar of soap at a time.”

Curious about what recycling soap has to do with saving lives, I ended up on the phone with the managing director of the initiative. As he explained, hotels in rich countries waste soap while people in poorer countries lack an adequate supply of it. Put the two problems together and you’ve got an interesting solution to a global challenge.

“You check into a hotel and use a bar of soap one time, and you come back to the room the next night and that soap has been replaced by a brand new bar,” said Sam Stephens, managing director of Clean the World Foundation (which last year joined forces with the Global Soap Project and now operates under the Clean the World name). “We’re throwing away millions of perfectly good bars of soap.”

Access to soap and hygiene education are desperately needed in so many parts of the world, Stephens explained. “Some of the leading causes of death are hygiene-related, claiming the lives of 6,000 kids every single day, more than malaria and tuberculosis combined, because they didn’t have access to soap.”

A simple bar of soap, Stephens said, can potentially cut the death rate in half. But getting those bars into the hands of the people who need them took a few years to sort out.

Getting hotels on board

It was Derreck Kayongo, a refugee from Uganda to the United States in 2009, who first got the idea to recycle partially used soap. He had visited refugee camps and saw firsthand how the absence of soap made people more vulnerable to disease. In 2011, he was named a Top 10 CNN Hero for his innovative idea, which required a few years of trial and error to get right.

Eventually, the organization perfected the techniques involved with recycling used soap, and reduced the cost so the bars could be produced cheaply on a large scale. Since 2009, more than 35 million bars of soap have been distributed by Clean the World.

“It’s a pretty simple process, actually,” said Stephens, who took over the soap project’s leadership in 2011 from Kayongo (who now heads up National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia). “First it’s cleaned, then it’s ground up into powder. Then it’s reconstituted with a sterilizing solution.”

Stephens said it costs just a few pennies to recycle the soap. Participating hotels pay a small annual fee to ship their used soap and toiletries to the organization. “We’re not really paying anything to provide the supplies, we’re just paying for the labour.”

It took a few years to build up a significant number of hotels, but once partners saw the impact of the organization’s work both environmentally and from a humanitarian standpoint, it was an easy sell, says Stephens. Now the organization has more than 4,000 participating hotels across North America, Asia and Europe – including industry giants Hilton, Starwood and IHG.

Courtesy IHG

Clean the World soap bars in Honduras

“It’s such a wonderfully innovative way to take care of a problem that we have. A bar of soap can change someone’s life – it can make the difference between life and death,” says Jason Ilstrup, general manager of HotelRED in Madison, a hotel that has been participating in the program since it opened five years ago.

Ilstrup says that the cost to participate in the program is minimal and is part of his hotel’s charitable contributions. It also resonates with guests, he says.

How hand-washing can pull a child out of poverty

Along with bars of soap comes hygiene education in places where hand-washing has not yet become part of daily life. Clean the World just wrapped up an education program called Soap in Schools in Kenya, involving 4,000 elementary school students in rural villages. “Almost half of these kids were missing a week of school per month” due to illness, Stephens said.

Courtesy Clean the World

At the end of the nine-month program, nearly 60% of hygiene-preventable illnesses dropped among the students and school attendance increased by 40%. As Stephens reasons, greater school attendance means better career prospects and a chance to break the poverty cycle.

Not only does Clean the World distribute soap in developing nations, it also goes to homeless shelters and domestic abuse shelters in North America – “one-sixth of what we do on a global scale is in our own backyard,” Stephens said.

Clean the World has sent out 1.3 million hygiene kits with razors, washcloths, toothbrushes and toothpaste to disaster response areas, such as places in Haiti and the Caribbean devastated by Hurricane Matthew. It distributes soap to schools in poor communities in the United States that don’t have the budget to buy soap.

Stephens said it’s gratifying for him and other members of his organization to see the difference that soap can make first-hand, whether it’s a homeless person regaining a little dignity after a hot shower or a mother in Malawi who lost her husband and children to cholera and now has hope for a healthy infant son due to Clean the World’s hygiene programs.

“I like to say I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said.

To learn more, visit cleantheworld.org.

Published Wednesday, December 21st 2016

Header image credit: Courtesy Clean the World



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